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The Pale Blue Dot: A Timeless Valentine to the Cosmos

“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.”

On February 14, 1990, the Voyager 1 spacecraft — which carried The Golden Record, Carl Sagan’s love letter to Annie Druyan — turned its revolutionary camera around and took the iconic “Pale Blue Dot” photograph that later inspired the famous Sagan monologue of the same title. The image, composed of 640,000 individual pixels, depicts Earth, a mere 12% of a single pixel, at the center of a scattered ray of light resulting from taking an image this close to the Sun. It endures, even in an age when the future of space exploration hangs in precarious balance, as a timeless Valentine to the cosmos.

The Pale Blue Dot: Captured from 3.7 billion miles away, Earth appears as a tiny dot halfway down the orange stripe on the right.
Image: NASA / JPL

The “Pale Blue Dot” was part of a Family Portrait series of images exploring the Solar System.

The Family Portrait: These six narrow-angle color images were made from the first ever ‘portrait’ of the Solar System taken by Voyager 1 at 3.7 billion miles from Earth and about 32 degrees above the ecliptic. The spacecraft acquired a total of 60 frames for a mosaic of the solar system which shows six of the planets. Mercury is too close to the sun to be seen. Mars was not detectable by the Voyager cameras due to scattered sunlight in the optics, and Pluto was not included in the mosaic because of its small size and distance from the sun. These blown-up images, left to right and top to bottom are Venus, Earth, Jupiter, and Saturn, Uranus, Neptune.
Image: NASA / JPL

But we owe the actual recognition of Earth in the legendary photograph to Candice Hansen-Koharcheck, one of the two University of Arizona scientists who developed the command sequence that controlled the timing for each photograph’s exposure. That day, she was sitting in front of a computer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab with her shades drawn when she noticed the tiny speck on an image sent back by the camera she had helped design, which was now 4 billion miles away. She told NPR a few years ago:

It was just a little dot, about two pixels big, three pixels big, so not very large. … You know, I still get chills down my back because here was our planet, bathed in this ray of light, and it just looked incredibly special.

The Pale Blue Dot: This blown-up image of the Earth was taken through three color filters — violet, blue and green — and recombined to produce the color image. The background features in the image are artifacts resulting from the magnification.
Image: NASA / JPL

And yet photograph almost never happened — the NASA imaging team feared that aiming the camera at the Sun would damage it. But Sagan himself lobbied long and hard for an attempt. Vice Adm. Richard Truly, former head of NASA, recalls:

I did get a visit from Carl Sagan. We talked about a lot of things. And somewhere in that conversation he mentioned this idea. I thought, heck, with Voyager so far away, if it could turn around and take a picture of the different planets including the Earth, that that would really be cool. And so I was a great advocate of it, although I can’t take any credit for it.

(Those were the golden days when NASA made historic decisions simply because something seemed “cool.”)

Fortunately, it did happen. And four years later, Carl Sagan wrote of the iconic image in the preface to his book titled after it, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (public library):

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.

Earthrise, December 24, 1968
Image: NASA

But Sagan’s beautiful and timeless words might not be entirely his own — perhaps a manifestation of neurologist Oliver Sacks’s insights on memory and (inadvertent) plagiarism. As historian Robert Poole notes in Earthrise: How Man First Saw the Earth (public library), after the equally iconic Apollo 8 “Earthrise” photograph made its debut in 1968, the poet Archibald MacLeish penned an essay ‘Riders on the Earth,’ in which he articulated a strikingly similar sentiment:

For the first time in all of time, men have seen the Earth. Seen it not as continents or oceans from the little distance of a hundred miles or two or three, but seen it from the depths of space; seen it whole and round and beautiful and small… To see the Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold—brothers who know that they are truly brothers.

The essay appeared in The New York Times on Christmas Day that year.

Then again, the similarity in language might simply be an inevitable expression of the overview effect. Whatever the case, the “Pale Blue Dot” endures as a sublimely beautiful cosmic Valentine that reminds us, more than two decades later, of the ineffable relativity of our human scale.

Celebrate the “Pale Blue Dot” and its legacy with some stunning animated adaptations of Sagan’s words.

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Alain de Botton on How to Think More About Sex

“The more closely we analyze what we consider ‘sexy,’ the more clearly we will understand that eroticism is the feeling of excitement we experience at finding another human being who shares our values and our sense of the meaning of existence.”

“When we hook up with another, in sex or love (or, more rarely, both) we prove that our isolation is not permanent,” Dorion Sagan — son of Carl — wrote in his fascinating history of sex. And yet that very quest to end our isolation has been subject to centuries of stigma and incessant friction with our social values. But it needn’t be this way.

Last week, The School of Life taught us how to stay sane by revising our inner stories. From the same fantastic series of intelligent, non-self-helpy, yet immensely helpful guides to modern living comes How to Think More About Sex (public library; UK) by philosopher Alain de Botton, who has previously given us some sage advice on success, a vision for religion for atheists, and some answers to little kids’ biggest questions.

De Botton writes in the introduction:

Despite our best efforts to clean it of its peculiarities, sex will never be either simple or nice in the ways we might like it to be. It is not fundamentally democratic or kind; it is bound up with cruelty, transgression and the desire for subjugation and humiliation. It refuses to sit neatly on top of love, as it should. Tame it though we may try, sex has a recurring tendency to wreak havoc across our lives: it leads us to destroy our relationships, threatens our productivity and compels us to stay up too late in nightclubs talking to people whom we don’t like but whose exposed midriffs we nevertheless strongly wish to touch. Sex remains in absurd, and perhaps irreconcilable, conflict with some of our highest commitments and values. Unsurprisingly, we have no option but to repress its demands most of the time. We should accept sex as inherently rather weird instead of blaming ourselves for not responding in more normal ways to its confusing impulses.

This is not to say that we cannot take steps to grow wiser about sex. We should simply realize that we will never entirely surmount the difficulties it throws our way. Our best hope should be a respectful accommodation with an anarchic and reckless power.

He later offers a delightfully animated account, reminiscent of Bill Plympton’s classic animated version, of why a kiss holds the appeal that it does:

The pleasure of the moment can be understood only by considering its wider context: the overwhelming indifference against which any kiss is set. It goes almost without saying that the majority of people we encounter will be not merely uninterested in having sex with us but positively revolted by the idea. We have no choice but to keep a minimum of sixty or, even better, ninety centimeters’ distance between us and them at all times, to make it absolutely clear that our compromised selves have no intention of intruding into their personal spheres.

Then comes the kiss. The deeply private realm of the mouth — that dark, moist cavity that no one else but our dentist usually enters, where our tongue reigns supreme over a microcosm as silent and unknown as the belly of a whale — now prepares to open itself up to another. The tongue, which has had no expectation of ever meeting a compatriot, gingerly approaches a fellow member of its species, advancing with something of the reserve and curiosity exhibited by a South Sea Islander in greeting the arrival of the first European adventurer. Indentations and plateaus in the inner lining of the cheeks, hitherto thought of as solely personal, are revealed as having counterparts. The tongues engage each other in a tentative dance. …

Beneath the kiss itself, it is its meaning that interests us — which is why the desire to kiss someone can be decisively reduced… by a declaration of that desire — a confession which may in itself be so erotic as to render the actual kiss superfluous.

But the true mesmerism of sex, de Botton argues, isn’t even in the physical act itself — it’s in the existential promise that it holds:

The pleasure we derive from sex is also bound up with our recognizing, and giving a distinctive seal of approval to, those ingredients of a good life whose presence we have detected in another person. The more closely we analyze what we consider ‘sexy,’ the more clearly we will understand that eroticism is the feeling of excitement we experience at finding another human being who shares our values and our sense of the meaning of existence.

[…]

Our culture encourages us to acknowledge very little of who we normally are in the act of sex. It seems as if it might be a purely physical process, without any psychological importance. But … what happens in love-making is closely bound up with some of our most central ambitions. The act of sex plays out through the rubbing together of organs, but our excitement is no boorish physiological reaction; rather, it is an ecstasy we feel at encountering someone who may be able to put to rest certain of our greatest fears, and with whom we may hope to build a shared life based upon common values.

Ultimately, sex is a grounding mechanism that reminds us of our own imperfect humanity, and in that imperfection lies the messy richness of being human:

Without sex, we would be dangerously invulnerable. We might believe we were not ridiculous. We wouldn’t know rejection and humiliation so intimately. We could age respectably, get used to our privileges and think we understood what was going on. We might disappear into numbers and words alone. It is sex that creates a necessary havoc in the ordinary hierarchies of power, status, money and intelligence.

[…]

We might even embrace the pain sex causes us, for without it we wouldn’t know art and music quite so well. … When every contemptuous but fair thing has been said about our infernal sexual desires, we can still celebrate them for not allowing us to forget for more than a few days at a time what is really involved in living an embodied, chemical and largely insane human life.

Complement How to Think More About Sex with some of literary history’s most beautiful definitions of love.

Public domain images via Flickr Commons

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Uncreative Writing: Redefining Language and Authorship in the Digital Age

“An updated notion of genius would have to center around one’s mastery of information and its dissemination.”

“And your way, is it really YOUR way?,” Henry Miller famously asked. “Substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources,” Mark Twain consoled Helen Keller when she was accused of plagiarism. Even our brains might be wired for the necessary forgettings of creativity. What, then, is the value of “originality” — or even its definition?

A recent interview on The Awl reminded me of a wonderful book by Kenneth Goldsmith — MoMA’s first poetry laureate, founder of the massive grassroots audio archive Ubu Web, and professor at my alma mater, UPenn’s Kelly Writers House — titled Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age (public library; UK). Much like Vannevar Bush did in 1945 when he envisioned the future of knowledge and presaged the value of what he poetically termed “trail blazers, those who find delight in the task of establishing useful trails through the enormous mass of the common record,” Goldsmith examines the importance of sorting existing ideas and makes a case for the cultural value of stealing like an artist, particularly as we’re building our new literary canon.

Goldsmith writes in the introduction:

In 1969 the conceptual artist Douglas Huebler wrote, ‘The world is full of objects, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.’ I’ve come to embrace Huebler’s ideas, though it might be retooled as ‘The world is full of texts, more or less interesting; I do not wish to add any more.’ It seems an appropriate response to a new condition in writing today: faced with an unprecedented amount of available text, the problem is not needing to write more of it; instead, we must learn to negotiate the vast quantity that exists. How I make my way through the thicket of information — how I manage it, how I parse it, how I organize and distribute it — is what distinguishes my writing from yours.

He samples a beautiful concept that broadens our definition of genius:

Literary critic Marjorie Perloff has recently begun using the term unoriginal genius to describe this tendency emerging in literature. Her idea is that, because of changes brought on by technology and the Internet, our notion of genius — a romantic isolated figure — is outdated. An updated notion of genius would have to center around one’s mastery of information and its dissemination. Perloff has coined a term, moving information, to signify both the act of pushing language around as well as the act of being emotionally moved by that process. She posits that today’s writer resembles more a programmer than a tortured genius, brilliantly conceptualizing, constructing, executing, and maintaining a writing machine.

(Though, one might argue, information is only valuable when it’s synthesized into knowledge, which is then in turn transmuted into wisdom — so, perhaps, an even better concept would be moving wisdom.)

Goldsmith goes on to examine how technology has sparked a new culture of transformation as authorship:

Today, technology has exacerbated these mechanistic tendencies in writing … inciting younger writers to take their cues from the workings of technology and the Web as ways of constructing literature. As a result, writers are exploring ways of writing that have been thought, traditionally, to be outside the scope of literary practice: word processing, databasing, recycling, appropriation, intentional plagiarism, identity ciphering, and intensive programming, to name but a few.

[…]

There’s been an explosion of writers employing strategies of copying and appropriation over the past few years, with the computer encouraging writers to mimic its workings. When cutting and pasting are integral to the writing process, i would be mad to imagine that writers wouldn’t exploit these functions in extreme ways that weren’t intended by their creators.

Except, of course, none of this is new. We already know that as far back as the Middle Ages, authors were making remarkable florilegia, the Tumblrs of their day, by literally cutting and pasting text from existing manuscripts to create entirely new contexts.

Still, Goldsmith is careful not to disparage traditional literature but laments the stale values it has instilled in us:

I’m not saying that such writing should be discarded. . . . But I’m sensing that literature — infinite in its potential of ranges and expression — is in a rut, tending to hit the same note again and again, confining itself to the narrowest of spectrums, resulting in a practice that has fallen out of step and unable to take part in arguably the most vital and exciting cultural discourses of our time. I find this to be a profoundly sad moment — and a great lost opportunity for literary creativity to revitalize itself in ways it hasn’t imagined.

Perhaps one reason writing is stuck might be the way creative writing is taught. In regard to the many sophisticated ideas concerning media, identity, and sampling developed over the past century, books about how to be a creative writer have completely missed the boat, relying on clichéd notions of what it means to be ‘creative.’

For the past several years, Goldsmith has been teaching a Penn class after which the book is titled, inverting the paradigm of traditional “creative writing” courses. His students are penalized for any semblance of originality and “creativity,” and rewarded for plagiarism, repurposing, sampling, and outright stealing. But as counterproductive and blasphemous as this may sound, it turns out to be a gateway to something unusual yet inevitable, that certain slot machine quality of creativity:

The secret: the suppression of self-expression is impossible. Even when we do something as seemingly ‘uncreative’ as retyping a few pages, we express ourselves in a variety of ways. The act of choosing and reframing tells us as much about ourselves as our story about our mother’s cancer operation. It’s just that we’ve never been taught to value such choices. After a semester of forcibly suppressing a student’s ‘creativity’ by making them plagiarize and transcribe, she will approach me with a sad face at the end of the semester, telling me how disappointed she was because, in fact, what we had accomplished was not uncreative at all; by not being ‘creative,’ she produced the most creative body of work writing in her life. By taking an opposite approach to creativity — the most trite, overused, and ill-defined concept in a writer’s training — she had emerged renewed and rejuvenated, on fire and in love again with writing.

Goldsmith echoes legendary designer Charles Eames, who famously advised to “innovate only as a last resort,” and writes:

Having worked in advertising for many years as a ‘creative director,’ I can tell you that, despite what cultural pundits might say, creativity — as [it has] been defined by our culture with its endless parade of formulaic novels, memoirs, and films — is the thing to flee from, not only as a member of the ‘creative class’ but also as a member of the ‘artistic class.’ Living when technology is changing the rules of the game in every aspect of our lives, it’s time to question and tear down such clichés and lay them on the floor in front of us, then reconstruct these smoldering embers into something new, something contemporary, something — finally — relevant.

In addressing the most common contestations to his ideas about accepting all language as poetry by mere reframing — about what happens to the notion of authorship, about how careers and canons are to be established, about whether the heart of literature is reducible to mere algorithms — Goldsmith seconds a sentiment French polymath Henri Poincaré shared more then a century ago when he noted that to create is merely to choose wisely from the existing pool of ideas:

What becomes important is what you — the author — [decide] to choose. Success lies in knowing what to include and — more important — what to leave out. If all language can be transformed into poetry by mere reframing — an exciting possibility — then she who reframes words in the most charged and convincing way will be judged the best. I agree that the moment we throw judgment and quality out the window we’re in trouble. Democracy is fine for YouTube, but it’s generally a recipe for disaster when it comes to art. While all the words may be created equal — and thus treated — the way in which they’re assembled isn’t; it’s impossible to suspend judgment and folly to dismiss quality. Mimesis and replication [don’t] eradicate authorship, rather they simply place new demands on authors who must take these new conditions into account as part and parcel of the landscape when conceiving of a work of art: if you don’t want it copied, don’t put it online.

Ultimately, he argues that all of this is about the evolution — rather than the destruction — of authorship:

In 1959 the poet and artist Brion Gysin claimed that writing was fifty years behind painting. And he might still be right: in the art world, since impressionism, the avant-garde has been the mainstream. Innovation and risk taking have been consistently rewarded. But, in spite of the successes of modernism, literature has remained on two parallel tracks, the mainstream and the avant-garde, with the two rarely intersecting. Yet the conditions of digital culture have unexpectedly forced a collision, scrambling the once-sure footing of both camps. Suddenly, we all find ourselves in the same boat grappling with new questions concerning authorship, originality, and the way meaning is forged.

The rest of Uncreative Writing goes on to explore the history of appropriation in art, the emerging interchangeability between words and images in digital culture, the challenges of defining one’s identity in the vastness of the online environment, and many other pressing facets of what it means to be a writer — or, even more broadly, a creator — in the age of the internet. Complement it with the equally subversive How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read.

Photographs: Cameron Wittig (top); Grand Life Hotels (bottom)

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