Night falls on our 15 hour overnight road trip to see the total solar eclipse. The bright orange clouds tinted with neon reds and yellows fade from gray to black. Memories of driving those same types of highways come back to me. It’s like time crosses back on itself.
When I was younger and confused about life, I spent a lot of time driving between one pointless hope and another through long stretches of desert. On one road trip, I stopped at some crossroad gas station that still dotted the mostly empty desert around the Test Site. Scrawled on the bathroom wall was a sketch of a flying saucer with the words: UFOs are HERE Watch the Skies. A tantalizing thought. I stepped out into the parking lot. Even with the lone streetlight, the night sky burned. A hot breeze stirred some salt cedar in a dried creek bottom. I’d grown up in the deserts of the American Southwest and for a time, as a boy, we’d lived in tents down on the Mexican border. My old man was a curious man and read a lot. We’d sit around as the campfire burned down and the intense blackness of night would close around us. He’d be there, the glow of his cigarette, and he’d start reeling off stories about how far away stars were – Alpha Centauri 4.3 light years, and explain a light year meant an the incredible distance of space. In effect he said, we were looking at light generated millions and billions of years ago. We kids lay back and peered at the black between the stars and wondered about the immensity of the universe. Right about that time NASA Voyager had been launched as a calling card for humanity. Even though we’d be billions of years dead by the time any deep space civilization intercepted and interpreted golden records carried by the space vehicle, it was still the hope that intelligent life had evolved and flourished in the universe, off the planet Earth. It was also the time of the Wow signal heard at Ohio State, although it never repeated, it was considered to be the best candidate for an extraterrestrial radio signal ever discovered.
It was no Contact, but it was something a boy such as I was could place some hope in. I’ve often wondered, as I got older, why I hoped for this life. I used to walk out into the deepest desert night just hoping aliens would come down. I ached to travel those vast distances to see whatever was out there. Was I so lonely and such an outsider that chancing it with extraterrestrials seemed a viable option? So alienated? I pun, but like the arrival of Christ, of which preachers had disappointed me about, and the more I read, realized there were centuries of disappointed believers, I started asking for extraordinary evidence, to quote Carl Sagan, to prove extraordinary claims. Sagan worked on Voyager and formed The U.S. Planetary Society in 1980 to aid in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI). He watched the skies and allowed for the existence of some sentient, intelligent beings in the universe, but needed more proof than the scrawling on a bathroom wall. That’s the rub. Not many people really want evidence and want to live in the reality where whatever they believe is true like religious fanatics and conspiracy theorists. Their evidence is the word, the prophet’s call from the desert, even if it’s graffiti. In 1990 Sagan requested Voyager’s cameras turn toward Earth as it left our solar system and take a final photograph before shutting down the cameras. Voyager shot the photos from 3.7 billion, 40.5 AU, miles away. A record distance for a photograph. The photograph captured by the narrow- angle camera became known as the Pale Blue Dot photo. Earth and all of us take up less than a pixel, .12 out of 640,000.
It feels natural, as we see ourselves as what could be a fleck of blue lint on the filter of photograph to become introspective. To look around and consider as Sagan said,”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.”
Read the rest of Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot lecture here.
We should heed Sagan’s wisdom. I wonder though at my own reaction. After reading and rereading his lecture I can’t help but think of the first time I saw the image. Of all the nights I’ve stared into the living black of space and the star clouded sky, the Pale Blue Dot photograph made me feel space was staring back.