Book Commentary: Pale Blue Dot

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Much of Pale Blue Dot, by Carl Sagan, deals with looking at the Earth from a new perspective. In this perspective, we are, like in a lab we completed, new to this planet, in search of life or intelligence without any prior knowledge. Sagan discusses why this planet is so unusual, and the many oddities associated with it that can we see simply from looking and using basic measuring tools. This book overlaps with much of what we’ve discussed in the course, challenging what we’ve learned and accepted as basic knowledge. It’s a new kind of science that I was able to better understand with the idea of science as a story-telling, making this book particularly more useful to me now than it had been in the past.

Two main things in Sagan’s book struck me as especially interesting. He discusses the concept of the Earth as an explorer would see it, and talks about how it would be “bizarre” to think that the “blue stuff in enormous qualities, kilometers deep”, would be liquid water, since as far as this solar system is concerned, it exists no where else (p. 63). He also talks about our blue daytime sky, and how we expect it to be blue everyday, and if one day we woke up, and it was black or yellow or green, we’d be stunned (p. 156). Beyond this blue sky, he devotes a chapter to discussing the “sacred black” which the sky develops into less than 30 kilometers above.

This relates directly to our biology course, also challenging the assumptions that we’ve been taught to believe. Our oceans seem so common, so vast, and are taken so much for granted that it’s rare to stop and think that other places in this solar system, let alone this universe don’t have anything like them. On the same lines, it’s also interesting to think about how other planets don’t have blue skies, and that, even on our planet, the sky is only blue for a small, limited distance. Beyond that, there’s infinite darkness, a concept that seems quite difficult to grasp. This all relates to the major theme of the book- that the Earth is just a pale blue dot in this major spectrum of the universe.

In class, we discussed how scientific laws are science stories that simply have not been disproved, yet. We believe that the sun will rise everyday, because it has, while we’ve been alive. One day though, it may not, and then a new story will be needed. If the sun doesn’t rise, we will all be shocked, and unprepared. We like believing in what we know, in what has worked and continued and has showed patterns in the past. This relates to the story of expecting a blue sky, and that one day, if the sky isn’t blue, we’ll need a new story. The science as a story-telling method makes a lot of sense here, and seems to be the only thing that can reassure us that even if the events we deem most methodical do not happen everyday, we can adjust the story and be flexible, finding an answer that fits until proven wrong again.

In class, we were also shown a website (http://www.wordwizz.com/pwrsof10.htm), that made us feel how small we actually are. Carl Sagan’s book does the same thing through photographs as well, in which each one of us is something we can’t even imagine to see, on this tiny little dot somewhere in space. It’s pretty amazing that our lives- every single person, every interaction, every thought, every person from the past- all took place and lived on this tiny dot. It makes us realize that every great thinker from the past, to every interaction we have had, all happened on Earth- on our tiny blue planet, just a small dot in the universe.

In class, we talked about how much organization- how much careful planning, structure and complexity makes up even the tiniest of things, as we know them. These minuscule cells and tissues and all they make up are just these unbelievably small specks in the scheme of the universe, yet there’s so much order to them to make them just the way they are. We talked about this complexity in regard to these tiny structures, and whether there’s a degree of arbitrariness related to it. It’s interesting that there’s so much detail- so much careful architecture- making up even the smallest improbable assemblies of cells, and that while we see cells as small, the overall size of the tiniest cells are, when compared to the universe, far smaller than anything we ever could possibly imagine.

Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, and our biology class, had an incredible amount in common. The book talks about we, as humans, are explorers on this planet, and the discoveries and findings we have experienced. He talks about what we expect everyday, and how astonished we would be if the unexpected occurred, such as a purple or green sky on an otherwise ordinary day. Through photographs, we see our planet that we lovingly call home, as a tiny blue dot that we can barely see, among a sky so full of larger, more colorful, brighter dots, all among a vast, black background. In class, we discussed nearly the same topics, in a very similar manner. We were shown similar photographs, and told to explore without prior knowledge of the planet. We were taught science as a way of story telling rather than of sole fact learning.

Pale Blue Dot is written in this same manner, that it’s almost as if the book is the written version of the course we took this semester. The exception here is that rather than going into detail and depth on cells and chemical elements, as we did in this course, the book concentrates more heavily on the cosmos and space, and planetary discoveries and findings. Both the book and especially the course left me with the knowledge that nothing is absolute, and that science as a way of story-telling is the most useful to way to look at it, since that allows flexibility when laws fail or are proven wrong. More than just teaching about specific formulas to know or a set amount of particular events that changed history, both the course and the book gave me a new way of thinking, which is far more useful that a set of memorized facts. Thinking about the Earth, and the world, and even the universe, in terms of this larger, new perspective of story telling, is really interesting, and something quite applicable when thinking about anything, or, everything, for that matter. We may each just be one tiny, tiny speck on this small blue dot, but learning just how small we are makes us realize, even if just for the moment, how vast the universe is, and how much more we have to learn and explore.

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