Saturday, July 12, 2008

Humility and Hope in the Face of Immensity

People often ask what it is I hope to do with my degree in “Interdisciplinary Science.” My goal, in my own small way, is to communicate our understanding of humanity's place in the universe as revealed by the methods and findings of science. If I can be even one percent as effective and eloquent as the astronomer Carl Sagan was in communicating the humbling, yet hopeful, self-awareness science makes possible, I will have realized my goal. Made famous by his co-creation and hosting of the PBS television series Cosmos in 1980, he died, far too soon, in 1996. Dr. Sagan was one of the chief scientific investigators for NASA's Viking missions to Mars and the Voyager 1 and 2 missions to the outer planets: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

The Voyager 1 spacecraft had completed its primary mission in 1990. After passing beyond the orbit of Neptune, Dr. Sagan suggested that the camera aboard Voyager 1 be turned towards Earth for one last look, just as a child, leaving home to begin the adult period of their life, turns back for one last glance of where they started from.

The Pale Blue Dot...

As you watch the video, I hope you not only look at the images, but really listen to, and think about, the words. Throughout my life, similar words and images, and these words and images in particular, have moved me, often to the point of tears, beyond my ability to adequately express. In the video, Dr. Sagan refers to the study of humanity's place in the universe as a profoundly humbling and character-building experience. It is more than that though, for these words, and the ideas behind them, have moved me, inspired me, and above all else, have given me hope which all of the "holy books" of all the world's religions cannot even approach.

Our individual lives, our loves, our tragedies and sufferings, and our occasional, yet all too temporary triumphs, when seen against the staggeringly large scale of the universe–the cosmos, lead many people to feel reduced to insignificance. Instead of humility, they feel despair. Too often, the despair forces many people to turn back, to grasp for something, anything, that will make them again feel significant. This is unfortunate, for it is only part of the message. Standing at the brink of the unknown, if we do not turn back in fear, we find we are capable of exploring our immediate neighborhood, that the new knowledge thus gained enables us to take a few more cautious, yet hopeful steps, into the unknown. Since the realization, hundreds of years ago, that our home, the Earth, revolves about the sun, and not the other way around, humanity's understanding has only grown. The obvious smallness of humanity's home, set against the immensity of the cosmos, when combined with our ability to understand and appreciate these facts, and our determination to continue to explore, is for me, and many like me, a source of profound hope. Humility without Despair and Hope without Certainty...

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