Close Reading Carl Sagan’s “Reflections on a Mote of Dust”
Pale Blue Dot Revisited (2020), NASA/JPL-Caltech
by Ed Simon
Supplementing my regular essays, I’m interested in performing a series of traditional close readings of poems, passages, dialogue, and even art, demonstrating the utility of a critical practice that’s sometimes obscured more than its venerable history would warrant. If you’re interesting in seeing more close readings on particular works of literature or pop culture, please Tweet your suggestions @WithEdSimon.
Three decades ago, on Valentine’s Day in 1990, the Voyager space-probe reoriented its camera in the direction of its origin, and was able to capture the furthest image of the Earth ever taken, from almost four billion miles away. Smaller than a single pixel, our world is suspended in a ribbon of luminescence, with Earth appearing as nothing so much as a solitary dust fragment captured in a ray of morning light.
The picture was taken at the urging of astrophysicist and popularizer of science, Carl Sagan, who had worked on the original Voyager mission (and was famously involved with the compilation of its “Golden Record”). Acknowledging that there was little concrete scientific benefit to the image, Sagan had argued that reorienting the space probe’s camera so as to record Earth from such a distance would provide a perspective that would be culturally, philosophically and spiritually beneficial. He considered the implications of that picture four years after it taken, in his celebrated work, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. A passage from that book, often informally referred to as “Reflections on a Mote of Dust,” asks the reader to “Look again at that dot.” What follows are five concise paragraphs wherein Sagan does just that, producing one of the most popular passages from a work of scientific journalism written in the past several decades.
Writing in The Atlantic, Marina Koren says that thirty years later, the Voyager image should be understood as a “display, however fuzzy, of humankind’s capacity to catapult away from our planet in an attempt to understand everything else.” BBC Science Correspondent Jonathan Amos declares that the aqua sliver in a field of black is “unquestionably one of the greatest space images ever.” Meanwhile, Carolyn Porco at Scientific American exclaims that the picture “capped a groundbreaking era in the coming of age of our species.”
Many peoples’ reactions to the picture, which, if a viewer is unaware of what they’re looking at, happens not to look like much of anything, is understandably filtered through the experience of reading Sagan’s “Reflections on a Mote of Dust.” Perhaps the most talented and widely read popular science writer of the last quarter of the 20th century, Sagan was able to avoid the acerbic mean-spiritedness of a Richard Dawkins or the naïve scientificity of a Neil DeGrasse Tyson, writing rather in a poetic idiom that sacrificed nothing in the way of accuracy. Sagan rather belonged to an earlier grouping of scientist-explainers, figures like Stephen Jay Gould, Lewis Thomas and Rachel Carson, who drew upon a rich vein of humanistic expression to use science as a means of contemplation and not just technocratic apologetics, making him a figure as reminiscent of the 18th- or 19th- centuries as much as of the 20th (in the best way).
Porco tells Richard Speed at The Register that more than the picture itself, it was what “Carl had to say about it. It was the way he romanced it. And the way he turned it into an allegory on the human condition is why it has since had the power that it’s had.” At Slate, while observing the photo’s twenty-fifth anniversary, Phil Plait simply said that Pale Blue Dot contains “one of the most beautiful and moving passages I’ve ever read.”
The passage in question has a relatively simple, if profound, message – that the Earth is solitary and unique, and that any perspective on it must somehow balance the paradox of our complete and utter insignificance with the profound singularity of that existence itself. Sagan uses the opportunity of the photograph to consider what exactly it means to be human, and how the details of scientific fact must reconcile and relate to the experience of human life. Sagan’s five paragraphs have certainly been enduring; there have been cartoons and songs, and this year the Carl Sagan Institute at Cornell University released a video with numerous astronomers reciting the passage.
In a career that ran a gauntlet of scientific and literary accomplishment, from his pioneering work with NASA to the PBS documentaries he made such as Cosmos, and in books from The Dragons of Eden: Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence to Broca’s Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science, almost no passage written by Sagan will probably be remembered and recited as fondly as that from Pale Blue Dot. It is an exemplar of a very particular combination of rhetorical devices, which make Sagan’s words sound as scripture devoid of the supernatural, with the astronomer reading as a prophet mute to the occult. Pale Blue Dot is sublime poetry divorced from the supernatural; it is transcendental without adhering to the transcendent.
Throughout the passage, Sagan avails himself of classical rhetorical tropes, and he’s able to build up to a crescendo whereby the literal implications of his argument became unavoidable. After imploring the reader to once again examine the simple photo, Sagan writes “That’s here. That’s home. That’s us.” By using both the front-loaded repetition of anaphora and the numeric regularity of rhetorical tricolon he is able to both give the passage the feeling of characteristic biblical parallelism, and a distinctive rhythm. More importantly, by narrowing onto his subject from the more to the less abstract (“here,” “home,” “us”) Sagan mimics the sense of descending onto the dot itself. Sagan is particularly fond of aforementioned anaphora, and he uses such repetition to great affect in the next few sentences. Describing the dot in question, he says that “On it everyone’s love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives.” There is a breathlessness to the sentence, underscored in the asyndeton that deletes the anticipated conjunction that should mark the last clause. Furthermore, Sagan hits this word “everyone” over and over again. It’s a notable gambit, since such sweeping generalizations are normally to be avoided in affective rhetoric, since very rarely does the word “every” actually apply to most things under discussion; the power of the passage here is that of course this particular subject is the case where Sagan is absolutely correct to use that word.
This distinctly biblical sense of antithesis follows through in the next sentence, for Earth is the “aggregate of our joy and suffering… every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant… every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” In that long sentence, most of the clauses set up direct oppositions between the subjects considered (hero/coward, king/peasant, saint/sinner). In a few of the clauses not quoted above, there isn’t the same sort of tension, for even when the pairs are opposite there isn’t necessarily a value judgment implied, such as with “mother/father,” or “inventor/explorer.” Regardless, all of these oppositions are important, since the central argument of Sagan’s – that we’re all “on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam” – must submerge these human contradictions into the unity of our shared condition of being stuck on the Earth. This is where the repetition of “every” once again becomes so important; there are no exceptions to our condition, no heroes on Mars or sinners on Venus. The repetition and the broad sweep implied by the pairs (i.e. “It includes these things, and everything in-between”) are used to continually make this simple point.
Sagan is not above cliché; “The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena,” or “rivers of blood.” They’re used sparingly though, and in context they can seem as if intertextual allusion, bringing to mind classical and biblical antecedents. This biblical quality is the most pronounced throughout Pale Blue Dot, and anaphora is the most commonly used conceit of the passage. Writing of humanity’s blood lust Sagan describes “how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are… how fervent their hatreds.” He writes of how “Our posturing, our imagined self-importance…Our planet is a lonely speck… our obscurity.”
The plural first person repeated at the start of each sentence sounds like a litany. If there is an emotional tenor to the passage, at least one that we’re to read on the surface before Sagan leads us to an ethical conclusion, it’s of the sheer literal smallness of the Earth, where “Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark,” encompassing all of our experience as humans. That, it must be said, is made self-evident. What Sagan derives from the factuality of that condition is that “in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”
What’s powerful in the reasoning of the passage is that Sagan’s claim doesn’t come from a position of faith; rather it’s made clear from the undeniable factuality of the situation of Earth’s exemplariness which he so poignantly describes. Strictly speaking he’s agnostic on issues both extraterrestrial and supernatural, writing that he “Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life,” and much is implied by this “so far.” Right after this his contention that there is “nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate,” ameliorates itself with that “at least.” Yet the tenor of the passage is clear – if there’s to be salvation, it must (as far as we can tell) come from the pale blue dot itself.
Where “Reflections of a Mote of Dust” draws its power is that nothing which Sagan so poetically describes—at least in the literal specificity of it—is up for any kind of debate. It is true that all of our heroes and villains have only ever lived on Earth; it is true that all which is good and evil is only known for a fact to have its origins from our planet. So rarely does the language of totalizing have such import, since in most circumstances any sweeping, generalized statement normally has some sort of exception. But in this case, there are no exceptions, and Sagan is justified in making those claims. Were the passage not focused on the image itself (which, admittedly, is a nonsensical counterfactual) it would lack in that same solemnity, and would perhaps seem prosaic or obvious. Yet the repetition of these indisputable, almost common-sensical observations organized by that grandiosity of rhythmic parallelism, generates something rare – sublimity without mysticism. Sagan’s passage, and perhaps reasons for its endurance, come from the scriptural quality of the writing, pressed into the service of a scientific message, where just as the reader must assent to each of the carefully laid out observations about how the totality of experience is limited to our small rock, must then conclude that “it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” This of course is the value judgment Sagan’s eluded until the ending—nothing about those previous observation necessarily leads to such a conclusion—but as he builds to that that somber but inspiring contention, it certainly seems fair to believe that he’s correct.
About the Author:
Ed Simon is Editor at Berfrois, the Editor-at-Large for The Marginalia Review of Books, a channel of The Los Angeles Review of Books, and a frequent contributor at several different sites, having appeared in publications such as The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, The Washington Post, Newsweek and Jacobin among others. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon, his Facebook author page, or at his website. His collection America and Other Fictions: On Radical Faith and Post-Religion was released by Zero Books in 2018.