Wednesday, February 10, 2010

How Insignificant Are We?

The late George Carlin once pondered the many movements to "save" endangered species on this planet and observed, "We're so self–important."

To gain an appreciation for just how self–important we are, perhaps it is necessary to get some distance. Maybe that is the best way to gain some perspective and get an idea where we really fit in to the grand scheme of things.

That really isn't as difficult as it sounds. Twenty years ago, the space probe Voyager 1 did the leg work for us.

A little background here: Voyager 1 was launched in early September 1977. Originally, it was designed to visit and send back photographs of Jupiter and Saturn, but its mission was extended and it continued toward the boundaries of the solar system.

On Valentine's Day 1990, as Voyager was about to leave the solar system, NASA transmitted instructions to it to shoot photos of earth and the rest of the planets, which it did. From those photos, NASA compiled a mosaic of the planets in our solar system that has been dubbed the "Family Portrait."

The probe sent back 60 photos. In one photo, called the "Pale Blue Dot," the earth shows up as little more than a speck about halfway across a brown band.

Look at the picture attached to this post. See the speck? That's the earth, as seen from a distance of about 3.7 billion miles. In 1990, there were about 5.2 billion people on that speck. There are more than 6.7 billion now.

Yet, from the boundaries of our solar system, the planet is almost too small to be seen. And astronomers tell us that our solar system is merely a fragment, a crumb on the intergalactic table, a morsel in the vastness of space.

In our frame of reference, America is a vast land, and the earth is not such a small world after all.

But by cosmic standards, we are Lilliputians, waiting for our Gulliver to arrive.

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