Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot sermon, animated


In 1990 the Voyager I spacecraft was leaving our solar system, and at Carl Sagan’s suggestion the mission team had it turn and take a photo of Earth from 4 billion miles away — the ultimate long-distance selfie.

That’s us in that photo, that tiny speck of  reflected light near the top — a pale blue dot suspended in a sunbeam.

That image inspired Sagan to write one of the most profound pieces of writing I’ve ever read, this passage from his book, Pale Blue Dot:

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 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. 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.

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.

As they say here in the south, “That’ll preach.” Meaning, basically, RIght on, brother!

I can’t imagine a finer sermon to inspire wonder and appreciation and perspective.

Farnam Street shared this lovely animation accompanying Carl Sagan’s narration:


Standing on the edge of the known

A recent episode of the Nerdist podcast featured physicist Brian Cox, who hosts his own entertaining and enlightening podcast, The Infinite Monkey Cage.

I listened to most of this episode of the Nerdist while walking my dog last night. The podcast was a fascinating conversation between regular humans and a super smart scientist who has a knack for making complex concepts approachable for the rest of us.

It’s a great episode and made me consider possibilities about the nature of the universe that I hadn’t before. And Cox had this poetic comment more than an hour into it that I had to write down:

“I think the key to being a scientist is to delight in not knowing. It’s to stand on the edge of the known and face the unknown with curiosity and delight and not fear.” –Brian Cox

It’s the key to being not just a scientist, though, but a curious, open-minded human no matter your work. This embrace of not-knowing has been a theme in much of what I’ve read recently.

Courage is required, but delight and wonder and new possibilities are the reward for letting go of certainty.

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The merits of doubt

As I was trying to wake up my 7-year-old for school this morning, I reminded her that today is St. Patrick’s Day. That got her attention, and she asked if I thought leprechauns were real. Apparently, there’s been talk at her school this week about leprechauns making mischief.

Without giving it much thought, I just said, “Of course, leprechauns are NOT real.” I suppose I should have played along, but I was still waking up myself, and I thought I was providing some relief from her being anxious about the thought that leprechauns might be lurking about. I usually smile and nod at the fairy tale wishes of my kids, but I just blurted out my first reaction to the leprechaun musings this morning.

But she shot back that I couldn’t prove they aren’t real. “Ah!” I responded. “The burden of proof is not on me, but on those who say leprechauns are real.”

Her adamance and our brief conversation about “proving” beliefs got me thinking that we tend to overly deprecate doubt and overvalue belief.

I shouldn’t have to prove the non-existence of something. Believers are the ones with the burden to substantiate the thing they say is true if they want others to believe along with them.

“Doubting Thomas” is a term of derision. “Just believe!”, conversely, comes across in our culture as a worthwhile exhortation. But shouldn’t it be the opposite? Shouldn’t doubt be an honorable and logical default for any thinking person? Belief without reason or evidence is hollow.

Later in the day I came across this essay, Teaching Doubt, by the physicist Lawrence Krauss in the online version of The New Yorker. He makes the case that a modern society that values reason and education should make it a priority to “plant the seeds of doubt” in the next generation.

From Krauss’s essay:

Doubt about one’s most cherished beliefs is, of course, central to science: the physicist Richard Feynman stressed that the easiest person to fool is oneself. But doubt is also important to non-scientists. It’s good to be skeptical, especially about ideas you learn from perceived authority figures. Recent studies even suggest that being taught to doubt at a young age could make people better lifelong learners. That, in turn, means that doubters—people who base their views on evidence, rather than faith—are likely to be better citizens.

And he closes with this:

One thing is certain: if our educational system does not honestly and explicitly promote the central tenet of science—that nothing is sacred—then we encourage myth and prejudice to endure. We need to equip our children with tools to avoid the mistakes of the past while constructing a better, and more sustainable, world for themselves and future generations. We won’t do that by dodging inevitable and important questions about facts and faith. Instead of punting on those questions, we owe it to the next generation to plant the seeds of doubt.

I don’t want to steal the wonder and delight of childhood by killing the magic of fairy tales or by pouring cold water on imaginative flights of fancy. But I do want my kids, and you should want yours, to not just take some authority’s word for the way things are. Instead of handing them answers, I need to free them to ask questions, whether I’m confident of what I think the answers are or not.

I’m not envisioning a cynical, “prove-it-to-me”, arms folded, hard-hearted kind of doubt. The posture that seems most promising is an open-minded, skeptical, yet optimistic curiosity. The attitude that responds with “Fascinating” and “Help me understand” and “I wonder why…” and “I might be wrong, but…”

What if the next generation grows up more curious than they are certain, more inclined to seek evidence and understanding than being content with hand-me-down answers? There will still be room for imagination and fantasy and maybe leprechaun stories, but there also will be more possibilities for making sense of the mystery we all are swimming in.

“Of course we might be wrong, but…”

From an interview on with Brian Cox, the physicist and science superstar and host of the entertaining BBC radio show/podcast, The Infinite Monkey Cage:

Science is often presented as being dogmatic, when actually it’s the opposite of that. I’m just writing a new book actually, with a colleague of mine Jeff Forshaw at Manchester [University], and it’s really about how to think like a scientist. And in it we say that there’s an implicit preface — the start of every scientific book or every theory, the sentence should start “of course we might be wrong, but…” Could you imagine if every other area of human thought began with that? Imagine if the Bible started with “of course we might be wrong. However, in the beginning, God created…” Fantastic!

It’s a delight to fully embrace not-knowing. It takes the pressure off. You don’t have to be right or to have it figured out.

When I was young, I was pretty close to having it all figured out. Somehow, though, I’ve gotten dumber as I’ve aged. That’s normal, right?

Grasping for certainty can lead to bludgeoning others, and yourself, with the so-called right answers, with your application of what’s black and white and with no room for grey. And you’re likely to end up holding tightly to a comfortable fiction.

What if you searched for possibilities instead of certainty? Everything gets bigger with that approach. More possible paths. More possible solutions. More insecurity and uncertainty, yes. But more fun, too.

You look good in grey. Really. It flatters you.

Of course, I might be wrong…

Andromeda rising

This merits full screen. It’s a great video highlighting the most recent wonder from the Hubble Space Telescope, a stunning view into the galaxy nearest ours.

The density of stars in this image of just a portion of just one galaxy is incredible. And watch till the end of the video to appreciate the context. And remember that galaxy is headed straight for us.

If you need a regular dose of perspective, bookmark this video. When you feel the weight of the world on you, just pause and look into the sky and unburden yourself.

You are so, so small. But it’s glorious to be so small and yet able to ponder just how grand it all is.

Sunday evening Stoic: Wash off the mud

Meditations 7.47:

Of course, you do revolve with the stars. And, our view of the stars and the perspective they provide has magnified profoundly since the second century when the emperor wrote those words.

The image in the slide above is the latest bit of wonder from the Hubble space telescope. It’s an incredible new photo of Andromeda, the galaxy nearest to our Milky Way. You can see so many far, far away stars, and in just one little speck of the nearby universe. (Consider this image for a good sense of how massive Andromeda is, but also for an appreciation of what a small speck we are in relation to the wonders of the universe.)

The world too much with you? Weighing you down? Stuck in the mud of life and not seeing the light? Look up. Look within. Let the big picture cascade over you and wash away the mud.

We are living in wonder land.

Our star-filled neighborhood


This photo of the Milky Way by astrophotographer Robert Gendler is stunning:GSC_6273_289

Click on this photo to enlarge it for full awesomeness and existential stupefaction.

Phil Plait wrote about it on his site yesterday. Look into what seems like a cloud and realize you’re looking at countless individual stars and their glow. How tightly packed these stars seem to be. Each one a massive wonder in its own right, a peer to our sun, maybe with Earth-like planets orbiting. So much mystery and possibility in this fabulous photo.

There are probably more than 200 billion stars in just our galaxy. And there are probably at least one hundred billion galaxies in the universe.

We are so, so small. A speck in a vast sea of wonders. But knowing how small we are makes us grander than we have ever been as a species. Embracing our place in the universe is the first step on the path to understanding and expressing the epic magnificence of reality.

Having a bad day? A little star gazing is good for the soul and will recalibrate your perspective while crushing your puny so-called problems. Just look up.

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The Fermi Paradox and our place in the universe

What is the more disorienting, confounding possibility? That Earth is the only source of intelligent life in this massive and intricately complex universe, or that we are only one of many intelligent species scattered across the countless galaxies? has a magnificent explanation of the Fermi Paradox. It’s complicated. Go read it and ponder this really big question: since the universe is so, so big and very, very old and filled with earth-like planets in abundance, why haven’t we heard from any other intelligent species?

Consider this from the article:

for every grain of sand on Earth, there are 10,000 stars out there


there are 100 Earth-like planets for every grain of sand in the world

These can be your imagination-defying, consciousness-expanding thoughts for the day, for the year even. You deserve to go to the beach just to stare dumbfounded at the sand and sky and bask in your smallness.

The article concludes with this:

Beyond its shocking science fiction component, The Fermi Paradox also leaves me with a deep humbling. Not just the normal “Oh yeah, I’m microscopic and my existence lasts for three seconds” humbling that the universe always triggers. The Fermi Paradox brings out a sharper, more personal humbling, one that can only happen after spending hours of research hearing your species’ most renowned scientists present insane theories, change their minds again and again, and wildly contradict each other—reminding us that future generations will look at us the same way we see the ancient people who were sure that the stars were the underside of the dome of heaven, and they’ll think “Wow they really had no idea what was going on.”

That said, given that my normal outlook is that humanity is a lonely orphan on a tiny rock in the middle of a desolate universe, the humbling fact that we’re probably not as smart as we think we are, and the possibility that a lot of what we’re sure about might be wrong, sounds wonderful. It opens the door just a crack that maybe, just maybe, there might be more to the story than we realize.

I love that thought: “the possibility that a lot of what we’re sure about might be wrong, sounds wonderful.”

Brace yourself for regularly discovering that you are wrong about really important stuff. Having all the answers is boring anyway, right? The people with the good questions are the ones having the most fun.

Asking unanswerable questions

Ann Druyan, writer and executive producer of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, in a recent interview:

I have no problem asking the unanswerable questions, or in asking the as-yet-unanswerable questions. I have no problem with asking them, and I certainly have no issue with how we get through those dark nights of the soul by answering them. I would never presume to tell anyone how to answer them for themselves, not even my own children. I wouldn’t even think of it. I can only speak for myself when I say, “Yeah, asking questions – the more the better.” It’s just that if you come up with answers that make no adjustment to the scale of space and time that we find ourselves in, we see a failure of the imagination.

I happen to be surprisingly okay with uncertainty, but I’m not interested in intentionally rocking the world of someone who is not. All of our fellow humans are on their own, unique journey and traveling, presumably, as excellently as they think they can.

Keep asking questions and don’t settle for easy answers or answers that happen to work for someone else and have been handed to you in a tidy package. And have the courage to move on from the comfort of answers that were once cherished, or even sacred, but now don’t hold up to reason and have no compelling evidence to sustain them. The boat that got me across the river is no longer useful to me as I try to cross the mountain now in front of me. It’s okay to put the boat down and keep going.

Kiss your brain, and get moving

Here’s a fascinating TED Talk explaining that our brains developed primarily to facilitate movement:

Wolpert points out that computers can “outthink” a human chess master, but that even a five-year-old has dexterity that blows away anything the most sophisticated robot can do.

Physical movement is our primal and primary strength. Regrettably, we as a culture seem to be living more in our heads and on our butts than fully maximizing our amazing physical gifts.

Go take a walk, and make it a mindful, fully present experience. Learn to juggle. Swim. Play catch. Ride a bike. Balance on a curb. Enjoy, glory in, your remarkable dexterity and physical skills.

I have a teacher friend who regularly tells her kids, “Kiss your brain.” Be smart, certainly. Challenge yourself mentally. But also embrace your physical nature and kiss your brain by moving like a human.

Via Movnat


Ian McEwen on science

The novelist Ian McEwen on his fascination with science:

“Science is simply organised human curiosity and we should all take part. It’s a matter of beauty. Just as we treasure beauty in our music and literature, so there’s beauty to be found in the exuberant invention of science.”

This is from a great interview over on, which is a site well worth getting lost in to explore lists of good books and interviews with book lovers.

For the love of science

We had a conversation with our campus tour leaders this week about science. Most tour leaders are not science majors. For whatever reason, few science students are drawn to our work. We get plenty of business and journalism majors, and there’s no shortage of English and political science students either.

But as campus tours unfold and they pass by science buildings, it’s easy for the non-science students on our team to dismiss science or apologize that we require at least a couple of science classes for all of our students.

I felt that way when I was an undergraduate. I just wanted to get past my science requirements with as little stress as possible. Now, I regret how little attention I paid to those subjects. Science has become significantly more fascinating to me in recent years.

In the history of humanity, it is the development of and amazing advances in science that stand out as our greatest achievements. Art and statecraft have their place, but science, even though it’s a relatively recent endeavor, has changed our lives exponentially for the better and sparked our inclination to explore and discover as never before. More people should honor and understand science. If we don’t do that in higher education, where will we?

I have begun trying to absorb more now about science and adding books to my reading list by or about Feynman, Darwin, Sagan, and Einstein. I don’t always understand. It’s like reading something written in a foreign language at times. But I can’t help but get excited about approaching the frontier of mysteries our ancestors could not even imagine.

This is the first video in the delightful Feynman Series. Check out the Sagan Series as well.

“I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live with not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.” -Richard Feynman

The end is near

I was at a conference in Denver last year and saw a headline in the local newspaper that said astronomers had determined conclusively that the nearest galaxy to ours, the Andromeda galaxy, is on a collision course with our very own Milky Way. There’s no way around it. It will be catastrophic, cataclysmic. Andromeda definitely will collide with the Milky Way… in four billion years.

The good news is that our solar system, our tiny little corner of the galaxy won’t be impacted by the collision until about two billion years after the initial impact. So, we’ve only got six billion years.

Need perspective? Think big picture. Really big picture. While pondering the scale of galaxies and the mind-boggling expanse of time and space may make you feel small and insignificant, our smallness and our life’s brevity are reality. But how amazing is it that we are a part – and a conscious, intelligent, aware part – of such a grand, awesome, beautiful universe?

Pause and reflect regularly on the wonder of it all. Look up. Look closely at the mysteries that surround us, from the blade of grass underfoot to the galaxies spinning far beyond. Be wowed by all that is and that anything is at all.

“The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.” -Albert Einstein