How One Image Put the Earth's Place in the Cosmos in Perspective

Somewhere, some 20 billion kilometers away, the only manmade object to ever reach interstellar space is traveling away at a heliocentric speed of 17 kilometers per second. It's the Voyager 1 probe, and 26 years ago, it took one of the most remarkable pictures in history.

The thing I love about science is its ability to put life and our place in it into perspective. One of my favorite things to do is stare at the stars and think about the fact that the light hitting my eye has travelled milions of light-years — tens of quintillions of kilometers — to strike my eye. It makes our humble planet that light could circle eight times in one second seem rather insignificant amongst the vastness of space, doesn't it? Voyager 1 has been exploring that vastness for almost four decades now. On February 14, 1990, while some 6 billion kilometers from Earth, it captured the below image.

The colored stripes are glare from the sun, but if you look closely, that tiny bright dot a little past halfway down in the yellow stripe is Earth itself. The famous astrophysicist, Carl Sagan, summarized the power of the image in a far more eloquent way than I could ever dream to. Watch the video above for his take. "Pale Blue Dot" remains one of my favorite photographs of all time. 

Image and video credit: NASA JPL and Caltech

Alex Cooke's picture

Alex Cooke is a Cleveland-based portrait, events, and landscape photographer. He holds an M.S. in Applied Mathematics and a doctorate in Music Composition. He is also an avid equestrian.

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Science has the ability to put life and our place in it into a perspective but who's? Perspective, by definition, depends on where you happen to be in relation to the thing being observed. A photo like this could easily give the impression that we're insignificant. Tell your wife/mother/whoever they're insignificant...

I think a photo like this just shows how valuable we are. The chances of us existing were so ridiculously low and in a Universe far too great for us to imagine. Even from a time perspective we're only here for the briefest moment, how rare and valuable does that make each and every one of us?

If you believe in the many worlds infinite number of universes would make our existence probable, rather than ridiculously low.

Oh man, I could riff about universe theories for days. :)

How can you use a theory with no measurable probability to assign probability? :-)

Thus the presupposition "if you believe in the many worlds theory"...I'm assuming the theory, therefore, I can use it to assign probability. :)

Well, it's kinda like saying there is no Santa Claus because there is no Santa Claus. :-/

Not really. I'm merely stating that "If you believe in this, then the application of said theory would mean.." I didn't say that it was a scientific fact, nor that the probabilities derived from it were true or useful. Just stating a matter of fact. If a person believes in the theory, it makes our existence much less improbable. That's all.

Hmm. Okay, that makes sense. I guess I was biased by the fact I think the Many Worlds Interpretation is silly. I generally don't like MWI because by decreasing improbability, it also decreases meaning. i.e. everything that happens would have eventually happened what?

True...but it is relative to the observer, right? It may not matter to the universe(s), but it matters to you. So yes, every decision you make could also have another you making the opposite decision but that doesn't make it any less impactful on this consciousness in this timeline, right? lol

Well, if you're only focusing (I had to get a photography reference in here!) on this timeline, the existence of any other timelines is irrelevant. Or is it!? :-)

Well that depends, just because you flip a coin 100 times does not mean it will average out 50/50. Each time you flip the coin each side has a 50% chance of landing and it could potentially land on one side for all 100 flips.

It's true that a infinite number of universes would make us probable but what if we are the only probable.

True, but that's precisely the point of probability and infinity. For 100 flips, you can absolutely get 100 heads or 100 tails...but over an infinite number of throws, you should approach half heads and half tails. If the two probabilities are that humans exist and humans do not exist...given an infinite number of universes, you can argue it's both likely that we should exist and should not exist.

The "Infinite Monkey Theorem" sounds reasonable but that doesn't make it so.
I think it's highly improbable that humans should have appeared we are. Very interesting to think about.
To bring it full circle, Carl Sagan suggested an extremely high probability of intelligent life in the universe and an equally low probability we would ever encounter them in any way.

LOVE this comment thread lol the nerds in the photography community make me happy :).

Very nice reminder of reality, for sure.

I love how Sagan puts it.

I tried to watch the video but he kept droning on, long after I got the point. Sorry. :-/

Do you know the simulation theory?

Didn't Rene Descartes disprove that? :-)

No, the idea is that the Planck time being noninfinitesmal indicates a discretization of the universe and points towards an advanced being running the universe as a simulation.

I had to look that up but didn't see any correlation between Planck time and, well... anything. But don't bother trying to explain it, you already sound like an adult in a "Peanuts" movie. ;-)