A mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

I went to see comedian Robin Ince at Birmingham’s Electric Cinema last Thursday.  He was performing his new one-man show – Robin Ince vs. the Moral Majority – as part of this year’s Birmingham Comedy Festival.  The bulk of the show consisted of a vicious yet hilarious attack on the so-called quality press and – in that respect at least – it was not unlike the final season of The Wire, albeit with more punchlines and less drive-by shootings.  Ince  was on remarkably good form and I’ve written a glowing review about it and everything.  I’ll tell you about that some other time.

Although the emotional content of the show was largely made up of anger, fury and the occasional bout of hysteria, Ince ended his set with something that was extraordinarily beautiful.  He read something I was familiar with but hadn’t seen for ages, a passage by the late Carl Sagan in which the famous American astronomer meditated on a photograph of our planet that was taken by the Voyager I spacecraft some 3.7 billion miles away:

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.

Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space  (1994)


The image above is the one that Voyager took.  If you look carefully – if you really squint at it – you’ll see a barely imperceptible white dot.  It’s just over halfway down and just under three-quarters of the way across.  It’s barely a pixel.

That’s us, that is.