Carl Edward Sagan (1934-1996)
Introducer: I’m honored to introduce Carl Sagan. Carl Sagan has been a teacher to so many of us. For so many years he has been warning us and causing us to look at the terrifying problems we have created with our Nuclear capacity. Carl Sagan inspires us to turn our energies away from materialism, from our small concerns and to focus on saving the life of the planet. Dr. Sagan first spoke in this Cathedral in 1983 on our first New Year’s Eve Concert For Peace. He is not only a friend of the Cathedral and a messenger of peace which technically means Carl that you are a kind of Angel, think about that. But like some of the great miracles we have spoken of tonight, having Carl here after almost a year of fighting a dread disease and having him well is another miracle. Carl Sagan!
Speech: It is a pleasure to be invited once again to one of the gorgeous ecumenical celebrations in the Cathedral of Saint John the Devine. The sense of how many ways there are of being human and of the underlying unity in human diversity is very clear. I’d like to thank my friend Dean James Parkes Morton for this more than decade long series of beautiful demonstrations of what is needed above all a sense of Global Community.
We are all cousins, if you trace our ancestry back far enough, you find, that all of us ultimately come from a small area in east Africa. The species Homo Sapiens began there a few hundred thousand years ago. The human family began there a few million years ago. Initially, we were small, struggling, groups of family members, itinerant, wandering, following the game, our numbers were few, our powers were feeble.
In the intervening years we have expanded to every Continent on Earth, some of us even reside at the ocean depths and for brief periods a few hundred miles over- head in space. We now number 5.6 billion of us and our powers have reached formidable if not awesome proportions.
A celebration like this is a kind of gathering of the tribes, a bringing together of the far-flung members of the human family and a recognition of our common origin and common goals. We are in the process of a great unification of the human species. We have only recently and quickly moved from the fastest rate of communication being how fast a human could run to the speed of light, according to Special Relativity the ultimate speed limit. Comparable increases have been made in the speed of transportation.
We now are entertained on a Global scale. The economies of the nations of the world are now integrated, the stock markets coalesced, the economic well being of one country affecting the economic well being of many others. The global environment, changes in the global environment are a common threat to everyone on earth. A molecule of chlorofluro carbon that rises over Chicago affects the health of people in Chile. A carbon dioxide molecule that rises into the atmosphere over China affects the climate in Europe. These molecules do not have passports, they are foolishly unaware of the importance of national boundaries and national sovereignty.
In the current, serious, environmental crisis, we are all in the same boat. No one generation and no one nation has been responsible and no one generation and no one nation can by itself solve the problem. This is a multi generational, multi national task and if we fail in it we fail the future of our species. We are forced not by ideology, not by philosophy but by our common interest in survival to work together.
This is also true in the somewhat receding threat of nuclear war, a major thermonuclear exchange would affect not only the people in the so called northern hemisphere target zone but through changes in the climate people every where on earth, people who had no possible connection with whatever the quarrel might have been to initiate global thermo- nuclear war.
And lately another common threat has arisen one which sounds like the sheerest science fiction but which is very real and that is, that a comet or an asteroid one kilometer across or larger would impact the earth and the resulting climate change pose serious problems for the continuance of our global civilization.
Sixty five million years ago an asteroid or comet ten times as large hit the earth, resulting in the extinction not only of all the dinosaurs but of most of the species of life on earth this too is a threat common to everyone on earth and the solution to this problem involving at least inventorying these asteroids and comets and ultimately learning how to effect small changes in their trajectories is also a task for all humans together.
The powers, the incredible powers of our technology, what we can do not just on purpose but even inadvertently forces on us levels of prudence, foresight and responsibility that have never been required before, not just on those who devise the technologies but on those who employ them, and of course this requires a widespread understanding of science and technology, otherwise the decisions will be made by a very few people who may by no means represent most of the people on earth.
We have designed a civilization based on science and technology and at the same time have arranged things so that almost no one understands anything at all about science and technology. This is a clear prescription for disaster. We may for a while get away with this mix of ignorance and power but sooner or later it is bound to blow up in our face.
It is not the technology is by itself and without amelioration dangerous, much less evil. We have always been technological. Our ancestors of a few hundred thousand years ago were technological. It was a stone-age technology to be sure but we chipped and flaked stones to make tools which were the means of our survival. It was the only edge we had on the other animals.
Today we are still tool using, our tools are much more powerful but they are responsible for a great deal that we tend to forget about. If not for agricultural technology the earth would support only some tens of millions of people, instead of more than five billion people. The vast majority of people on the earth owe their lives for this reason alone to technology.
Medicine, not just antibiotics but the full sweep of public health and medical technology and pharmaceuticals is responsible for the fact that in many parts of the earth, the expectation value of the human life expectancy is seventy or seventy five or even eighty years now, when only a few hundred years ago it was only twenty five or thirty years.
And I myself am a recent beneficiary of the recent only over the last few years advances in medical technology. And by the way I would like to thank from the bottom of my heart the fact that people in this congregation, so many of them produced prayers and good wishes for my health and survival, I’m deeply grateful and while I think it would be too much to say that it worked, the net result is that I seem to be fully recovered.
There is a widespread view that the alienation and loneliness that is so endemic especially in the non- traditional societies of the planet can be blamed on science. But I think it is clear that this alienation and loneliness are really due to a decline in the traditional societies especially the hunter-gatherer style extended families, to our immense numbers and to our ethnic and cultural diversity and also to deficiencies in our educational system.
Science is merely an extremely powerful method of winnowing what’s true from what feels good. Without the error correcting machinery of science we are lost to our subjectivity, to our chauvinism, to our longing to be central to the purpose of the universe.
One of science’s alleged crimes is revealing that our favorite most reassuring stories about our place in the universe and how we came to be are delusional. Instead what science reveals is a universe much older and much vaster than the tidy anthropocentric proscenium of our ancestors.
We have found from modern astronomy that we live on a tiny hunk of rock and metal, third from the sun, that circles a humdrum star in the obscure outskirts of an ordinary galaxy which contains some 400 billion other stars, which is one of about a 100 billion other galaxies that make up the universe and according to some current views, a universe that is one among an immense number, perhaps an infinite number of other universes.
In this perspective the idea that our planet is at the center of the universe much less that human purpose is central to the existence of the universe is pathetic. Does life thereby lose all meaning, I think not. I think we make our lives meaningful by the courage of our questions, by the depth of our answers, by how widespread our understanding is of the essential tools for managing our future, for how skeptical we are of those in authority and of our obligation to care for one another.
It has been my great good fortune to be involved in an extraordinary enterprise over the last thirty five years in which the human species sent robot exploratory vehicles to rummage through the planetary part of the solar system to survey our local swimming hole in space. One of these spacecraft, a two spacecraft mission, was called voyager and in 1989 after its brilliantly successful explorations of the Jupiter, Saturn Uranus and Neptune system, it became possible to do something I had wanted to do from the very beginning of that mission and that is to turn the cameras around and look back from beyond the outer most planet at our world.
We succeeded in doing this and the image that resulted was of a single pale blue dot momentarily in a sunbeam. I look at that dot and I think that’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On that dot everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human-being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joy and suffering thousands of confident and mutually exclusive 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, every hopeful child, every inventor and explorer, every revered 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 the dot on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of those who derived their self esteem from dividing the dot into two hundred still littler patches. 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 a great enveloping cosmic dark.
In our obscurity, in all this vastness their is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves, it is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling and even character building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. For me it underscores our responsibility, our profound responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot the only home we have ever known.