A Universe Not Made For Us

Here’s another chapter from Carl Sagan’s book, Pale Blue Dot, read by Sagan himself, in which he describes and challenges our tradition of letting subjectivity reign freely:

Thanks to Callum Sutherland for putting these videos together.

Our Technological Adolescence

For the 10-year anniversary release of the Cosmos TV series, Carl Sagan added commentaries to many of its episodes, talking about developments made since the series was first broadcast in 1980. In the clip added to the last episode, he said this:

The greatest thrill for me in reliving this adventure has been not just that we have completed the preliminary reconnaissance with spacecraft of the entire solar system, and not just that we’ve discovered astonishing structures in the realm of the galaxies, but especially that some of Cosmos’ boldest dreams about this world are coming closer to reality.

Since this series’ maiden voyage, the impossible has come to pass: Mighty walls that maintained insuperable ideological differences have come tumbling down; deadly enemies have embraced and begun to work together. The imperative to cherish the Earth and to protect the global environment that sustains all of us has become widely accepted, and we’ve begun, finally, the process of reducing the obscene number of weapons of mass destruction. Perhaps we have, after all, decided to choose life.

But we still have light years to go to ensure that choice. Even after the summits and the ceremonies and the treaties, there are still some 50,000 nuclear weapons in the world—and it would require the detonation of only a tiny fraction of them to produce a nuclear winter, the predicted global climatic catastrophe that would result from the smoke and the dust lifted into the atmosphere by burning cities and petroleum facilities.

The world scientific community has begun to sound the alarm about the grave dangers posed by depleting the protective ozone shield and by greenhouse warming, and again we’re taking some mitigating steps, but again those steps are too small and too slow.

The discovery that such a thing as nuclear winter was really possible evolved out of studies of Martian dust storms. The surface of Mars, fried by ultraviolet light, is also a reminder of why it’s important to keep our ozone layer intact. The runaway greenhouse effect on Venus is a valuable reminder that we must take the increasing greenhouse effect on Earth seriously.

Important lessons about our environment have come from spacecraft missions to the planets. By exploring other worlds, we safeguard this one. By itself, I think this fact more than justifies the money our species has spent in sending ships to other worlds.

It is our fate to live during one of the most perilous and, at the same time, one of the most hopeful chapters in human history. Our science and our technology have posed us a profound question. Will we learn to use these tools with wisdom and foresight before it’s too late? Will we see our species safely through this difficult passage so that our children and grandchildren will continue the great journey of discovery still deeper into the mysteries of the cosmos?

That same rocket and nuclear and computer technology that sends our ships past the farthest known planet can also be used to destroy our global civilization. Exactly the same technology can be used for good and for evil. It is as if there were a God who said to us, “I set before you two ways: You can use your technology to destroy yourselves or to carry you to the planets and the stars. It’s up to you.”

World Population Over Time

“The greatest shortcoming of the human race is our inability to understand the exponential function.” — Albert Bartlett

Randy Pausch: The Last Lecture

This is definitely one of the most inspiring talks I’ve seen, and by far the most interesting lecture. Randy Pausch, a professor at Carnegie Mellon university who was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer, talks about what’s important in life and how to achieve the dreams you had back when life was simpler. It’s lengthy, but I dare you to listen for five minutes and try to stop:


This is one of my favorite passages from Carl Sagan’s book, Pale Blue Dot, the sequel to Cosmos:

We were hunters and foragers.

The frontier was everywhere.

We were bounded only by the Earth, and the ocean, and the sky. The open road still softly calls.

Our little terraquious globe as the madhouse of those hundred thousand millions of worlds.

We, who cannot even put our own planetary home in order, riven with rivalries and hatreds; are we to venture out into space?

By the time we’re ready to settle even the nearest of other planetary systems, we will have changed. The simple passage of so many generations will have changed us. Necessity will have changed us. We’re… an adaptable species.

It will not be we who reach Alpha Centauri and the other nearby stars. It will be a species very like us, but with more of our strengths and fewer of our weaknesses, more confident, farseeing, capable, and prudent.

For all our failings, despite our limitations and fallibilities, we humans are capable of greatness. What new wonders undreamt of in our time will we have wrought in another generation? And another? How far will our nomadic species have wandered by the end of the next century? And the next millennium? Our remote descendants, safely arrayed on many worlds through the Solar System and beyond, will be unified by their common heritage, by their regard for their home planet, and by the knowledge that, whatever other life there may be, the only humans in all the universe come from Earth.

They will gaze up and strain to find the blue dot in their skies. They will marvel at how vulnerable the repository of all our potential once was, how perilous our infancy, how humble our beginnings, how many rivers we had to cross before we found our way.

Video by Michael Marantz