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2 minutes reading

On the scale of the universe surrounding us, humans are inconsequential

On the scale of the universe surrounding us, humans are inconsequential On the scale of the universe surrounding us, humans are inconsequential
Source: The Blue Marble
Pale Blue Dot
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Pale Blue Dot
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Mariners had painstakingly mapped the coastlines of the continents. Geographers had translated these findings into charts and globes. Photographs of tiny patches of the Earth had been obtained first by balloons and aircraft, then by rockets in brief ballistic flight, and at last by orbiting spacecraft—giving a perspective like the one you achieve by positioning your eyeball about an inch above a large globe. While almost everyone is taught that the Earth is a sphere with all of us somehow glued to it by gravity, the reality of our circumstance did not really begin to sink in until the famous frame-filling Apollo photograph of the whole Earth—the one taken by the Apollo 17 astronauts on the last journey of humans to the Moon (1).

It has become a kind of icon of our age. There's Antarctica at what Americans and Europeans so readily regard as the bottom, and then all of Africa stretching up above it: You can see Ethiopia, Tanzania, and Kenya, where the earliest humans lived. At top right are Saudi Arabia and what Europeans call the Near East. Just barely peeking out at the top is the Mediterranean Sea, around which so much of our global civilization emerged. You can make out the blue of the ocean, the yellow-red of the Sahara and the Arabian desert, the brown-green of forest and grassland.

And yet there is no sign of humans in this picture, not our reworking of the Earth's surface, not our machines, not ourselves: We are too small and our statecraft is too feeble to be seen by a spacecraft between the Earth and the Moon. From this vantage point, our obsession with nationalism is nowhere in evidence. The Apollo pictures of the whole Earth conveyed to multitudes something well known to astronomers: On the scale of worlds—to say nothing of stars or galaxies—humans are inconsequential, a thin film of life on an obscure and solitary lump of rock and metal.

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(1) known as "The Blue Marble" : an image of Earth taken on December 7, 1972, from a distance of about 29,000 kilometers (18,000 miles) from the planet's surface. It was taken by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft on its way to the Moon, and is one of the most reproduced images in history.

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