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Reflections on a Mote of Dust May 19, 2007

Posted by Wilz in Personal, Society.

This blog would not be complete without this post. These are perhaps the three paragraphs which had the most effect on my life. On May 11, 1996, the late Dr Carl Sagan delivered a commencement address excerpted below with reference to this image of Earth :


We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every 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 in 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 the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. 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. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, 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 and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Yep, those who are close to me would know that I have posted this before. But it bears repeating. Carl Sagan’s words practically defines how astronomy is a character building experience – through the realisation of your tiny place in the universe, and how you share it with so many others. It is my humble opinion that every human person on earth needs to read this message at least once in their lives. The Earth is so small, and we’re all here. All of us, together.

When I wanted to share these words with friends years ago, I often searched for the keywords “reflections on a mote of dust” in a search engine to find the page again. I later saved the page onto my hard drive so that there is no chance that I would ever lose these precious words. Today however, searching that exact phrase on Google yields 525 results, many of them quoting all three paragraphs. Many people have apparently taken his message to heart.

The image shown above which usually accompanies Carl Sagan’s words comes from this series of images which was taken by Voyager 1 as it was leaving our solar system. (Click for larger image) The satellite was turned around for a final photo shoot of all the planets in the solar system.


From Voyager’s point of view, the relative position of the Earth was quite close to the Sun. (like taking someone’s photo with the camera facing the sun). The Earth just happened to be in the path of one of the scattered light rays when the picture was taken.

Images of earth from space carry a great message of humility and introspection. Anousheh Ansari, the first blogger from space who paid for her space flight from her own pockets made the following observations from her space blog :

I was finally able to take a look outside and saw the Earth for the first time… Tears started rolling down my face. I could not catch my breath… Even thinking about it now still brings tears to my eyes. Here it was this beautiful planet turning graciously about itself, under the warm rays of the Sun… so peaceful… so full of life… no signs of war, no signs of borders, no signs of trouble, just pure beauty…

Earth is magnificent and peaceful from up here. You don’t see any of those awful things you hear on the news, from up here. The Earth is so beautiful and if we could all see it this way I’m sure we would do everything in our power to preserve it.

Perhaps the one wish I have, which may never be fulfilled is one that I share with Stephen Hawking – to see earth the way Anousheh has seen it. He is at least, one step closer to his goal.



1. Geoff - May 19, 2007

See me waving?

2. Paul Tan - May 21, 2007

LOL, which telescope do we need to see you?

3. Wilz - May 24, 2007

Loud (Bright?) and clear Geoff. Life is good I hope. Dusted your corner of the mote of dust lately?

4. anon - May 24, 2007

Hey wilz, see me waving too?

5. 50th Anniversary of Human Space Travel « Earthwatcher - April 12, 2011

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