Pale Blue Dot

Pale Blue Dot

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Overview

“Fascinating . . . memorable . . . revealing . . . perhaps the best of Carl Sagan’s books.”—The Washington Post Book World (front page review)

In Cosmos, the late astronomer Carl Sagan cast his gaze over the magnificent mystery of the Universe and made it accessible to millions of people around the world. Now in this stunning sequel, Carl Sagan completes his revolutionary journey through space and time.

Future generations will look back on our epoch as the time when the human race finally broke into a radically new frontier—space. In Pale Blue Dot, Sagan traces the spellbinding history of our launch into the cosmos and assesses the future that looms before us as we move out into our own solar system and on to distant galaxies beyond. The exploration and eventual settlement of other worlds is neither a fantasy nor luxury, insists Sagan, but rather a necessary condition for the survival of the human race.

“Takes readers far beyond Cosmos . . . Sagan sees humanity’s future in the stars.”—Chicago Tribune

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345376596
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/08/1997
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 84,621
Product dimensions: 5.43(w) x 8.24(h) x 0.77(d)

About the Author

Carl Sagan served as the David Duncan Professor of Astronomy and Space Sciences and Director of the Laboratory for Planetary Studies at Cornell University. He played a leading role in the Mariner, Viking, Voyager, and Galileo spacecraft expeditions, for which he received the NASA Medals for Exceptional Scientific Achievement and (twice) for Distinguished Public Service.
 
His Emmy- and Peabody–winning television series, Cosmos, became the most widely watched series in the history of American public television. The accompanying book, also called Cosmos, is one of the bestselling science books ever published in the English language. Dr. Sagan received the Pulitzer Prize, the Oersted Medal, and many other awards—including twenty honorary degrees from American colleges and universities—for his contributions to science, literature, education, and the preservation of the environment. In their posthumous award to Dr. Sagan of their highest honor, the National Science Foundation declared that his “research transformed planetary science . . . his gifts to mankind were infinite." Dr. Sagan died on December 20, 1996.

Read an Excerpt

1
 
The spacecraft was a long way from home, beyond the orbit of the outermost planet and high above the ecliptic plane—which is an imaginary flat surface that we can think of as something like a racetrack in which the orbits of the planets are mainly confined. The ship was speeding away from the Sun at 40,000 miles per hour. But in early February of 1990, it was overtaken by an urgent message from Earth.
 
Obediently, it turned its cameras back toward the now-distant planets. Slewing its scan platform from one spot in the sky to another, it snapped 60 pictures and stored them in digital form on its tape recorder. Then, slowly, in March, April, and May, it radioed the data back to Earth. Each image was composed of 640,000 individual picture elements (“pixels”), like the dots in a newspaper wirephoto or a pointillist painting. The spacecraft was 3.7 billion miles away from Earth, so far away that it took each pixel 5½ hours, traveling at the speed of light, to reach us. The pictures might have been returned earlier, but the big radio telescopes in California, Spain, and Australia that receive these whispers from the edge of the Solar System had responsibilities to other ships that ply the sea of space—among them, Magellan, bound for Venus, and Galileo on its tortuous passage to Jupiter.
 
Voyager 1 was so high above the ecliptic plane because, in 1981, it had made a close pass by Titan, the giant moon of Saturn. Its sister ship, Voyager 2, was dispatched on a different trajectory, within the ecliptic plane, and so she was able to perform her celebrated explorations of Uranus and Neptune. The two Voyager robots have explored four planets and nearly sixty moons. They are triumphs of human engineering and one of the glories of the American space program. They will be in the history books when much else about our time is forgotten.
 
The Voyagers were guaranteed to work only until the Saturn encounter. I thought it might be a good idea, just after Saturn, to have them take one last glance homeward. From Saturn, I knew, the Earth would appear too small for Voyager to make out any detail. Our planet would be just a point of light, a lonely pixel, hardly distinguishable from the many other points of light Voyager could see, nearby planets and far-off suns. But precisely because of the obscurity of our world thus revealed, such a picture might be worth having.
 
Mariners had painstakingly mapped the coastlines of the continents. Geographers had translated these findings into charts and globes. Photographs of tiny patches of the Earth had been obtained first by balloons and aircraft, then by rockets in brief ballistic flight, and at last by orbiting spacecraft—giving a perspective like the one you achieve by positioning your eyeball about an inch above a large globe. While almost everyone is taught that the Earth is a sphere with all of us somehow glued to it by gravity, the reality of our circumstance did not really begin to sink in until the famous frame-filling Apollo photograph of the whole Earth—the one taken by the Apollo 17 astronauts on the last journey of humans to the Moon.
 
It has become a kind of icon of our age. There’s Antarctica at what Americans and Europeans so readily regard as the bottom, and then all of Africa stretching up above it: You can see Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Kenya, where the earliest humans lived. At top right are Saudi Arabia and what Europeans call the Near East. Just barely peeking out at the top is the Mediterranean Sea, around which so much of our global civilization emerged. You can make out the blue of the ocean, the yellow-red of the Sahara and the Arabian desert, the brown-green of forest and grassland.
 
And yet there is no sign of humans in this picture, not our reworking of the Earth’s surface, not our machines, not ourselves: We are too small and our statecraft is too feeble to be seen by a spacecraft between the Earth and the Moon. From this vantage point, our obsession with nationalism is nowhere in evidence. The Apollo pictures of the whole Earth conveyed to multitudes something well known to astronomers: On the scale of worlds—to say nothing of stars or galaxies—humans are inconsequential, a thin film of life on an obscure and solitary lump of rock and metal.
 
It seemed to me that another picture of the Earth, this one taken from a hundred thousand times farther away, might help in the continuing process of revealing to ourselves our true circumstance and condition. It had been well understood by the scientists and philosophers of classical antiquity that the Earth was a mere point in a vast encompassing Cosmos, but no one had ever seen it as such. Here was our first chance (and perhaps also our last for decades to come).
 
Many in NASA’s Voyager Project were supportive. But from the outer Solar System the Earth lies very near the Sun, like a moth enthralled around a flame. Did we want to aim the camera so close to the Sun as to risk burning out the spacecraft’s vidicon system? Wouldn’t it be better to delay until all the scientific images—from Uranus and Neptune, if the spacecraft lasted that long—were taken?
 
And so we waited, and a good thing too—from 1981 at Saturn, to 1986 at Uranus, to 1989, when both spacecraft had passed the orbits of Neptune and Pluto. At last the time came. But there were a few instrumental calibrations that needed to be done first, and we waited a little longer. Although the spacecraft were in the right spots, the instruments were still working beautifully, and there were no other pictures to take, a few project personnel opposed it. It wasn’t science, they said. Then we discovered that the technicians who devise and transmit the radio commands to Voyager were, in a cash-strapped NASA, to be laid off immediately or transferred to other jobs. If the picture were to be taken, it had to be done right then. At the last minute—actually, in the midst of the Voyager 2 encounter with Neptune—the then NASA Administrator, Rear Admiral Richard Truly, stepped in and made sure that these images were obtained. The space scientists Candy Hansen of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and Carolyn Porco of the University of Arizona designed the command sequence and calculated the camera exposure times.
 
So here they are—a mosaic of squares laid down on top of the planets and a background smattering of more distant stars. We were able to photograph not only the Earth, but also five other of the Sun’s nine known planets. Mercury, the innermost, was lost in the glare of the Sun, and Mars and Pluto were too small, too dimly lit, and/or too far away. Uranus and Neptune are so dim that to record their presence required long exposures; accordingly, their images were smeared because of spacecraft motion. This is how the planets would look to an alien spaceship approaching the Solar System after a long interstellar voyage.
 
From this distance the planets seem only points of light, smeared or unsmeared—even through the high-resolution telescope aboard Voyager. They are like the planets seen with the naked eye from the surface of the Earth—luminous dots, brighter than most of the stars. Over a period of months the Earth, like the other planets, would seem to move among the stars. You cannot tell merely by looking at one of these dots what it’s like, what’s on it, what its past has been, and whether, in this particular epoch, anyone lives there.
 
Because of the reflection of sunlight off the spacecraft, the Earth seems to be sitting in a beam of light, as if there were some special significance to this small world. But it’s just an accident of geometry and optics. The Sun emits its radiation equitably in all directions. Had the picture been taken a little earlier or a little later, there would have been no sunbeam highlighting the Earth.
 
And why that cerulean color? The blue comes partly from the sea, partly from the sky. While water in a glass is transparent, it absorbs slightly more red light than blue. If you have tens of meters of the stuff or more, the red light is absorbed out and what gets reflected back to space is mainly blue. In the same way, a short line of sight through air seems perfectly transparent. Nevertheless—something Leonardo da Vinci excelled at portraying—the more distant the object, the bluer it seems. Why? Because the air scatters blue light around much better than it does red. So the bluish cast of this dot comes from its thick but transparent atmosphere and its deep oceans of liquid water. And the white? The Earth on an average day is about half covered with white water clouds.
 
We can explain the wan blueness of this little world because we know it well. Whether an alien scientist newly arrived at the outskirts of our solar system could reliably deduce oceans and clouds and a thickish atmosphere is less certain. Neptune, for instance, is blue, but chiefly for different reasons. From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest.
 
But for us, it’s different. Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
 
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
 
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
 
The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
 
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.
 

(Continues…)



Excerpted from "Pale Blue Dot"
by .
Copyright © 1997 Carl Sagan.
Excerpted by permission of Random House Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Pale Blue Dot 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 21 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I wish I could find the words to explain why this is the best book I have ever read but I am not good at words. This books explains who we are where we are and were we are going. Its like a bible to me. This book gives me hope about the future of Mankind.
AirScottDenning More than 1 year ago
This is one of Carl Sagan's last books, and offers a thoughtful consideration of our motives and priorities in space science and human space exploration. Sagan considers our thirst for knowledge and inspiration (as only he could!), the politics and budget implications of the space program, and the tension between robotic space probes and human space flight in NASA. The book is well argued and Sagan speaks personally from a long career in planetary science as well as his second career as the premiere explainer of astronomy. The book is becoming quite dated by 21st Century planetary science: Mars rovers, Cassini at Saturn, and especially the hundreds of exoplanets found by Kepler. Neither his most inspiring nor his most political book, but it's a good read and extremely relevant to readers interested in the "science vs exploration" debate at NASA.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very good. Sagan was on of the greatest minds.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This, along with Cosmos, is my favorite work by Sagan so far. Despite learning the basics of the universe in grade school I have not really thought about the world in the cosmic sense since. Sagan's gift of writing about hard topics such as this in a way that anyone could understand is amazing to me. For a student who was slightly average in such topics in school, I feel that only now through Sagan am I really getting the knowledge to understand science. I would recommend this book to any one of any age, it may help you as it did me to comprehend the mysteries of the universe.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It's a really good book. Carl reviews from our position in the universe until the human exploration and the voyager that is found traveling in the universe... you will love it.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Sagan is in his usual fantastic form here. He presents all his science in a clear and understandable form that any reader can grasp even without being scientifically oriented. The illustrations are just as wonderful as the text, but the real standout are the photos of six of the nine planets of our Solar System and the Sun taken in 1990 by Voyager 1 almost ten years and billions of miles from Earth. This book was actually better than his science fiction novel 'Contact'. 'Pale Blue Dot' should be required science reading in our Jr. High, High School and College Institutions.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not his best
jimdemanche on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
All though I have the greatest respect for Dr. Carl Sagan, he does tend to let his 'political opinions' leak out. It became very obvious to me that Dr. Sagan has no time for conservatives or Republicans in general.That said, this book is outstanding if one considers the date it was published. Young astronomers and environmentalists will see and learn about our small but precious Earth.The big take away for me was that we 'humans', are not the center of anything but our own imaginations. Our place in the cosmos is so insignificant, that it's not even worth mentioning. And to think we are so smart, is laughable.Thank you Dr. Sagan, and rest well.Jim DeMancheAmateur Astronomer
madcurrin on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Dated, but this is still the most majestic and relevant book you¿re likely to find about humanity¿s place in the solar system. I actually 'read' Pale Blue Dot by listening to the audiobook, narrated for the most part by the author himself. Carl Sagan's delivery is justifiably the stuff of legend, with his rich, deliberate and passionate enunciation. Years after his death Sagan remains one of the most poetic and thought provoking of writers. Marvellous, marvellous stuff.
robrod1 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Sagen writes in his usual eloquent and impassioned manner, about how we must venture into the vast cosmos, and begin our exploration of other worlds. He presents a well thought out argument for the exploration of space as a means of continuing our civilization well into the future. He convinced me, but I am not hard to convince when it comes to exploration or science. I gave this book a rating of three, because it is not as good as other books he has written.
Robin_Goodfellow on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
some fantastic content.. I mean really amazingly good. But also some seriously detailed stuff I tuned out a bit.
saskreader on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Even though I don't always agree with some of Carl Sagan's viewpoints, I do like how he makes scientifically inaccessible information accessible.
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????????
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Oh really? Thats so weird. Wait! If your dad doesnt allow you with males...isnt he a male? She gets quiet and thoughtful