Travel on a sunbeam

Up here in Southern Finland, Spring has sprung.  For much of the Winter it seemed the sun barely rose above the roofs on the other side of our garden near Helsinki.  Now, in early April, it seems so high for our Northern latitude!  Warmth, brightness, already long days, shorter shadows and, on this Saturday, a sunbeam bursts forth into our living-room.  Every single tiny speck of dust hanging in it shines in glorious radiance.  Sunlight has that habit, doesn’t it, of showing the dust and every smudge on windows not cleaned since Autumn set in…  For now, who cares; I’m transported, travelling far, far away thanks to a speck of dust hanging in a sunbeam! 

Immediately, at light-speed, I’m taken to the outer reaches of our solar system.  In my mind’s eye I see that iconic image of our planet, ‘Pale Blue Dot’, created thanks to Carl Sagan, American astronomer.  Err, Houston, run that one by me again? 

Well, it goes something like this.  On 14 February 1990, at Sagan’s instigation, the NASA Voyager 1 space probe that started its journey in the late 1970s and was over 6 billion kilometres away from Earth, took a photo of us.  Its mission was to explore the outer solar system and beyond but, knowing it was running low on battery power and time was short, Sagan got the probe turned around to face the Earth and take some photos. 

The result?  To my mind, one of the most impactful images ever taken and a tear-jerking-sit-up-in-your-seat-and-do-something-about-it piece of writing, by Sagan himself.  Look them up on the internet, they’re easy to find.  The image looks like nothing much at first, quite unlike the detail and imposing majesty of Earth-rise over the Moon taken by the Apollo space programme.  The pale blue dot is a snap of a tiny Earth, apparently less than a pixel wide, which appears to hang in an orange-tinged sunbeam.  Our planet is barely visible in the image and there isn’t really a sunbeam, it’s just an effect of light catching the camera equipment.  To me, the impact is nonetheless overwhelming.  A tiny pale blue dot, Earth, appears to hang in a sunbeam, surrounded by immense darkness.  On that remote speck of dust, in a world of such seemingly improbable wonder, a pandemic continues to unfold and it feels like we’re in trouble on all sorts of other fronts too: massive inequalities, ongoing conflicts, climate change – to name but a few.  How can we resolve them? To me, what Sagan wrote is a good start, a humbling, caring place from which to look at ourselves, each other, and this Earth, our home. 

Go on, look it up (again, even if you know it well), and read the extract from Pale Blue Dot / listen to Sagan’s recording of itA speck of dust, hanging in a sunbeam in the living-room transported me there. 

So what?  I suppose you could say this sort of lazy Saturday morning day-dreamy ‘kindda whatever’ micro-travel is cheap, gratuitous, inoffensive, perhaps even Gallic shoulder-shrugging ‘bof’.  I think so too, but perhaps not quite.  Our speck of dust is so small that really, we’re all so close to each other.  What could we achieve if we micro-travelled just a little closer together, to understand each other’s hopes and fears better, just a little closer to caring for the beauty, fragility and uniqueness of the Earth (at least in this corner of the vast cosmos)?  Not ‘pale’ but ‘bright’ blue dot with a vibrant, sustainable future?  Come on then, draw a little closer, let’s micro-travel together!

Thomas Jelley

Photo credits: NASA. Available at : https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/images/pale-blue-dot-revisited

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