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Hope on a pale blue dot

NASA
 Voyager's view
 of Earth as a
 pale blue dot.


Are you celebrating Christmas? Observing Hanukkah? Marking Sunday's winter solstice? Commemorating Carl Sagan's legacy?

Across the spiritual spectrum, this is the season of hope on our pale blue dot - even if you don't believe in God (or gods).

During the buildup to Christmas and Hanukkah, the news media tend to turn more attention to matters of faith, delving into the historical context for millennia-old beliefs. For example, this month's National Geographic's cover story focuses on what archaeologists and historians have found out about King Herod, the bad guy in the biblical Nativity story. (We recently posted an article about the wonders within Herod's tomb.)

But the Christmas season isn't just for Christians anymore: Even atheists are picking up on the holiday spirit, with evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and like-minded deep thinkers putting on a show called "Nine Lessons and Carols for the Godless." The London show looks at marvels such as the big bang, evolution and the nature of consciousness from a totally secular perspective.

Dawkins told the Telegraph that he was taking part in the show because he was "fed up with atheists being portrayed as Scrooges, trying to rain on Christmas."

Whether you're more concerned about the soul or the solstice, December provides a good opportunity for reflecting on cosmic themes. You don't have to be a religious believer to get into that reflective frame of mind. "You just have to be an astronomical believer," Ann Druyan, the widow of the late astronomer (and agnostic) Carl Sagan, told me today.

Even before Jesus' time, ancient cultures marked the winter solstice as a time when the world was at its darkest, a time when each succeeding day brought more light, and more hope for renewal. "It's very human to feel that way about this time of year," she said.

The fact that this weekend also marks the 12th anniversary of her husband's death adds to Druyan's reflective mood. So does the recent passing of two of Sagan's colleagues: Steven Ostro, an astronomer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory; and Cornell astrophysicist Ed Salpeter.

"There's a sense of sadness, but also tremendous hope - more hope for the future than I've had for a long time," Druyan said.

One big reason for that is last month's election of President-elect Barack Obama - the candidate for whom Druyan went doorbell-ringing this year. Obama's recent choices for science-related posts have added to her optimism. "I think Carl would have worked to get Obama elected," Druyan said. "I think he would have been very excited."

Although it's been 12 years since Sagan left this life, his legacy is, if anything, more lively than ever. Druyan is tickled to hear that people are selling WWSD (What Would Sagan Do?) T-shirts and that there are thousands and thousands of Carl Sagan videos on YouTube. (It hasn't gotten to the "billions and billions" level ... yet.)

Here's a holiday treat: Carl Sagan delivers the Royal Institution Christmas
Lectures in 1977, on the topic of the planets.


One video that Druyan is especially proud of was posted by NASA just recently, focusing on the creation of the Carl Sagan Exoplanet Fellowships. She sees the fellowship program as a vindication for Sagan's long-held belief that astronomers would discover alien planets beyond our solar system, and perhaps alien life as well.

In the old days, the idea that astrophysicists might be studying the prospects for extraterrestrial life was "kind of scandalous," Druyan recalled. Now that quest is part of the scientific mainstream.

Sagan's contributions went beyond the purely scientific sphere: His deepest insights had to do with humanity's place in the cosmos, and the immense array of wonders surrounding our celestial home. It was Sagan who persuaded NASA to place a record of Earth's sights and sounds on probes heading out from the solar system. And it was Sagan who suggested that Voyager 1 take a family portrait of the planets as they receded in the probe's conceptual rear-view mirror.

When the pictures came back, Sagan rhapsodized about the smallness - and the largeness - of the "pale blue dot" where all of human history has taken place:

"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. It underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the only home we've ever known, the pale blue dot."

This mash-up is inspired by Carl Sagan's "Pale Blue Dot" lecture.


With that, I'll open the floor for your own reflections on the interplay of science and spirituality, of faith and skepticism. For additional inspiration, here are links to online symposia from past years:

This year, I ask that you be respectful of others' comments when you make your own. After all, this is the season of hope.


For still more cosmic food for thought, check out Druyan's latest posting to The Observatory blog, the "Closer to Truth" Web site, this Voice of America remembrance of Sagan and this previous posting on the "gospels of science."

Update for 1 a.m. ET Dec.20: As fortune would have it, Clark Lindsey's Space for All blog is linking to the Voyager Golden Record Web site, which offers the images and audio clips that were placed aboard the Voyager probes. Any aliens who come across Mozart's "Queen of the Night" aria and the other masterpieces would have to realize that humanity wasn't all bad.