D-0: The Pixel

The following is the final piece in the Astroknowledge series. It was originally published on the Stellaris forums.


Welcome to the final episode of the astroknowledge series. Over the course of the last month, I’ve had a lot of fun and learned a lot; and I hope you have too.

Some time ago, I said that the Crab Nebula was my second favourite thing in space. Admiral Howe asked what my favourite was, and I said that we would cover it on D-0. So here we are.

(Image is in the public domain, courtesy NASA.)

This photograph was taken in 1990 by the Voyager probe, at a distance of 40 AU. Those vertical bars you see are light pollution from the Sun. The subject of the photo is a single blue pixel, about halfway down the rightmost brown bar. See it?

That’s Earth.

This is a selfie taken by homo sapiens, holding out our camera as far as we can in order to get a good image. Every single human being that was alive on 14 February 1990 is in this picture. If you’re too young to be in this photo then you are descended from people who were in it.

(If you were alive on 14 February 1990, can you remember what you were doing? I was still a child in the Southern Hemisphere. I would like to believe that I was classy enough not to pull a duckface for this selfie, but I suspect I wasn’t even aware of it.)

This picture was taken from a distance which is less than Pluto’s average distance from the Sun. This means that it is still very much inside our Solar system. From another star, we would be so faint as to be impossible to see; they would have to use planet-finding techniques in advance of our own to detect our planet, and the presence of humanity on it would be harder still.

If anything happened to this pixel – and over the course of the last month we’ve discussed a number of those – then we would all be dead and there would be no future generations of humans, with only be a handful of artifacts left to remind the cosmos that we had ever existed at all.

Well, fuck that. Homo sapiens deserves a better ending. We didn’t work as hard as we did and learn as much as we did to go down like a bunch of chumps. We need to get off this pixel, even if it may take hundreds of years to develop the technology and gather the resources. In order to do that, we need to cooperate, to mobilise our society effectively and not to wipe ourselves out first. Every discipline, from physicists to poets, has an equally worthy part to play here. Either all our descendants live and we spread endlessly across the galaxy, or the final generation of humans will die on the same pixel that their ancestors evolved on. We’re all in this together.

This is the final exam paper that the gods set us. One question, pass/fail. Win, we live forever. Lose, it will be as though we never lived at all.

Let’s do this.

I will leave you with the thoughts of my hero, Carl Sagan, who was inspired by the photo above to write the following lines. I hope that his words inspire you as they have me, and I hope that I may have inspired you in turn.

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again 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.


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