Monday, 27 October 2014


A voyage of discovery. It's September 5, 1977 and NASA/JPL's Voyage 1 spacecraft is launched atop a Titan IIIE/Centaur booster at Cape Canaveral's Launch Pad 41 (left). Thirteen years and 3.7 billion years later scientist Carl Sagan insists with NASA's Administrator Richard H Truly that for the benefit of public education the cameras of mankind's little robotic emissary are turned towards the inner solar system for a photograph of the Earth. At this distance, beyond the orbit of Neptune our planet is photographed as just 0.12 of a pixel (right).
As guest blogger, ANDY FLEMING in his own lifelong voyage of consciousness-raising, makes the ultimate connection between our ancient and vast cosmos and the human spheres of politics, economics, and philosophy. In the process he deduces that our very survival depends on new economic institutions, caring for each other and cherishing our Pale Blue Dot, the Earth, the only home humanity has ever known.

I’m sure that all of us who share the same political, economic, sociological and philosophical perspective of this unique, revealing and informative blog arrive at this standpoint via a variety of routes. For some of us, our journeys may have been circuitous and lengthy, perhaps taking a lifetime. Meanwhile others may have been encouraged at an early age to foster a sense of equity, fairness, critical thinking, healthy scepticism and a disdain for greed and selfishness.

My own voyage of awareness, consciousness-raising, synchronicity and connection-forging has taken me from my college education in science, then my university education in sociology, my employment in youth work, the retail sector and the media and then on to my burning passion: marvelling at the vastness of the cosmos and our place in space. Anyone who knows me knows that my avid interest is mankind’s original science of astronomy, practised by generations of human beings, way back into the mists of antiquity.

Whatever subject we use as a vehicle in our individual journeys of discovery that reveal who we are and from where we came (both as individuals and collectively as a species), the road often includes a pivotal turning point or spiritual awakening. Our whole world view changes profoundly and with it our beliefs and aspirations.
Such profound personal development and change often arises through exposure to the works of great philosophers, sociologists, poets, authors or religious leaders. And yes, sometimes, as in the case of Nelson Mandela politicians too! Such progress may also not be without some personal discomfort and stress, and indeed to some people, change may be a psychological imperative as they battle their own personal demons.

Personal change within the political or religious spheres for example may lead to profound conflict with one’s peers, friends and family as one develops new ways of seeing society and the physical world. These new beliefs and new ways of thinking with healthy scepticism often place the person on a direct collision course with prevailing paradigms and the orthodox perspectives of the social and physical worlds. The invariable outcome however is a better, healthier human being at peace with oneself, the wide world and the cosmos.
To individuals such as myself, this is of paramount importance because I had reached a stage in my life where psychologically and philosophically I no longer wished to live in a world dominated by prejudice, greed, corruption, war, surveillance, ever eroding personal and civil liberties and employment rights, the industrial-military complex, and the inequitable distribution of wealth and natural resources. I no longer wish to live in a society governed by individuals who directly or indirectly incite hatred against minority groups, the unemployed, the poor and the disabled. Their almost psychopathic lack of empathy to the poverty and suffering of others I find repulsive. No longer do I wish to live in a country or a world where a few individuals possess fifty per cent of humanity’s wealth whilst a callous blind eye is turned to poverty, starvation and environmental degradation.

NASA's Voyager 1 spacecraft. At a distance of about 19 billion
kilometres as of April 2014, it is the farthest  human made object
from Earth.
For me, this major pivotal, life-changing turning point and crystallisation of thought came when I read what I consider to be the most profound prose ever written by a human hand. It’s about a tiny pale blue dot of light measuring 0.12 of a pixel that was imaged by the NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Voyager 1 spacecraft in 1990, at a record distance of 3.7 billion miles from the Earth, beyond the orbit of Neptune, and at the edge of our solar system.

I’m getting down from my soapbox now and I’m going to be quiet, because I would like you to carefully read it please. Here it is:
“Consider 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 harbour 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.”
The author of these spine-tingling and spiritually uplifting words was not a religious leader or philosopher. Neither was he a politician or a world leader. He was a scientist of the highest standing, a NASA astronomer whose accolades included creating and presenting the fabulous PBS documentary series Cosmos, scientifically briefing the NASA Apollo astronauts before they left for the Moon and being involved at the highest level with the Pioneer 10 and 11, Voyager 1 and 2 and the Mars Viking Landers of 1976. He spent most of his career as a professor of astronomy at Cornell University where he directed the Laboratory for Planetary Studies. His works received numerous awards and honors, including the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal, the US National Academy of Sciences Public Welfare Medal, the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction for his book The Dragons of Eden, and, regarding Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, two Emmy Awards, the Peabody Award and the Hugo Award.

  His name, was Dr Carl Sagan.

Through his work I have come to realise the importance, perhaps even uniqueness, of both Homo sapiens, and our Earth, and why as a species we must survive, and protect our beautiful blue planet. This is despite the fact that at the moment the human future looks bleak with wars, greed, corruption, squandering of natural resources, gross consumerism and a lack of empathy to others being the order of the day.

But like Carl Sagan I firmly believe that our species can eventually rise to the challenge and replace old and corrupt economic models and institutions based on greed and infinite growth, with new ones based on human need and environmental sustainability. We can then advance and equitably share our adequate, although finite planetary resources. Because, let’s be clear; there are indeed enough resources on our pale blue dot for everyone if they are shared equitably. Children know this, they also show an uncanny imagination, and awe and wonder of the natural world. It’s just that as they grow older their parents and the education system kicks it all out of them.

Many years ago, my then toddler son once said to me after his day at nursery, “there is enough food (and resources) in the world for everyone’s need, there isn’t enough for everyone’s greed”.
What a fantastic thought for a five year old, and why adults can’t think like this, I thought. His toddler musings on the physical world also showed a similar imagination, with questions such as “why is the sky blue?” Instead of shrugging him off with “because it is stupid!” which seems to be response of today’s time-poor parents, I gave him the response a child truly deserves. As a proponent of basic scientific literacy I told him in simple terms that the sky is blue due to the scattering of sunlight in the Earth’s atmosphere by tiny particles of gas, called Nitrogen atoms.

It is the birth-rite of every child to explore both the cosmos and the social world anew, in a society where knowledge is prioritised over the cult of so-called ‘celebrities’, be they from the worlds of movies, music or sport. Every person has a right to a basic understanding of how the world and cosmos work.

We have contrived to produce a world where greed, prejudice, superstition, social and economic ignorance, and scientific illiteracy and have been allowed to develop and co-exist with high technology. Many of our scientists have been corrupted and are employed by the military industrial complex making armaments and weapons of mass destruction. We live in a society totally dependent on high technology and science, and yet virtually nobody (and most worryingly of all, our political leaders) knows anything about science. It’s a heady combination which if not halted will one day blow up in our faces.

I am convinced that if we are not to destroy ourselves then we must prioritise social and scientific education and cherish and care for both one another and the Earth itself. To be able to exercise choice, political or otherwise requires real knowledge, not the propaganda espoused by a few powerful individuals and companies.

We owe it to ourselves, our fellow human beings and that vast cosmos, so immense and so old from which we arose. As Carl Sagan (1980) said, we and are so special precisely because:

"Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return, and we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We're made of star stuff.
We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.”

Bibliography and Recommended Reading:

Sagan, C. and Druyan, A., Billions and Billions: Thoughts on Life and Death at the Brink of the Millennium. Ballantine Books, 1997. ISBN: 0-345-37918-7

Sagan, C., Cosmos, Random House, New York, 1980. ISBN: 978-0345331359

Sagan, C., Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. Random House, 1994. ISBN: 978-0345376595

Sagan, C., The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark, Ballantine Books, 1996. ISBN: 978-0345409461.

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