Monday, 10 May 2010

Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan

Lowdown: A strategic vision for humanity’s future in space.
As has been noted many times before, Carl Sagan is more than just another person to me. His story about the Jewish spaceman orbiting the earth and the moon and wondering when to conduct his prayers (the Jewish prayers' timetable is governed by the moon) has opened the floodgates of my personal skepticism, and his TV series Cosmos is still – in my honest opinion – the best thing to ever grace my TV. When Sagan speaks (sadly he does so no more), I listen.
The last episode of Cosmos ended with the question, who stands for the earth? With Pale Blue Dot Sagan takes this question and expands on it. His starting point is simple: what is our goal, as in humanity’s goal? All these things we’re doing, what is their strategic aim? After food has been brought to the table and we all got very rich, what’s next? Humanity, Sagan argues, lacks an overall strategic goal; no country or government has made even slightest attempt at coming up with such a thing. Well, in Pale Blue Dot Sagan attempts exactly that, providing his vision for the future of humans in space. If our species is to survive and flourish, going out to space is an inevitable move (if only because otherwise our civilization will be wiped by the next mega asteroid hit that boldly follows where no dinosaur has gone before).
One doesn’t go about coming up with a strategic vision by just pointing at the final goal; background has to be provided in order to explain that goal. Sagan does exactly that by examining how humanity’s perception of the world has evolved. The initial third of Pale Blue Dot does exactly that, looking at the way cultures used to think of themselves as the pinnacle of creation is a world created exclusively for them, and how slowly – through science and the technologies it brought – we came to realize we’re the inhabitants of a pale blue dot on the faraway corner of one galaxy amongst hundreds of billions of galaxies. Evidence points towards a universe indifferent to us, yet we still find it incredibly hard to unshackle ourselves from the chains of old dogmas. Although he’s not specific with his arguments, Sagan hits out at the religions of the world left and right in this part of the discussion. Personally, I have found this section of the book to be quite illuminating: it’s just amazing to see what we can learn from history if we put our minds to it, and it’s also amazing to see how bad we are when it comes to learning from history.
Sagan then moves to explore what we know of the world and how so much of what we know came from stuff we’ve learnt by examining outer space. His point is simple: the sky is not the limit. Sagan discusses what we know of our solar system’s planets and moons in much detail (or as much as was known during the mid nineties, when the book was written) and points out at how the studying of Venus has taught us of the potential risks to earth’s own ozone layer, and how similar studies have indicated the potential of man made global warming and man made nuclear winter. Space exploration is not only good at potentially identifying dangers, it is also good at getting the best out of humans, as in the case of cooperation between supposedly rival nations; from space, Sagan argues, international borderlines are not as obvious as we think they are.
Finally, in the third part of Pale Blue Dot, Sagan goes on to discuss his suggestions for what the careful yet feasible next steps for a species going out into space should be while taking political and economical concerns into account. Add it all together and what you have is a wonderful account provided by a wonderful person of a potentially optimistic and bright future for humanity. It could take us thousands of years to do what Sagan suggests we do, but I agree with his well presented case: humanity’s future is not in the tinkering between nations; if we want to have a future, especially given the damage we’ve been inflicting on our only home, our only hope is to look up at the stars.
Pale Blue Dot is yet another reason for me to think this world of ours is much poorer since Sagan’s departure. Sagan knows how to build an argument and how to present it. The reading flows even when tougher subjects are at hand, and unlike those textbooks I used to dread from university it’s all laid out so well that you can clearly see where Sagan is coming from and where he’s heading to with his arguments. Between this and a couple of other of his last books books, Demon Haunted World and Billions and Billions, Sagan has produced one must read after the other that are all still very relevant.
Overall: It may be not as exciting a read as some works of fiction but it’s pouring out with insight that should and would change your view of the world. 4 out of 5 stars.

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