When it comes to astronomy, the more you learn, the more you appreciate just where we sit in the grand scheme of things. It's both shockingly humbling and exhilaratingly uplifting at the same time.
Everyone is familiar with this picture, Earth as seen by Apollo 17 astronauts as they headed for the moon. Inarguably, it was one of the most important photos ever taken. It is credited with inspiring an entire generation to rethink their relationship with the planet and its finite resources - the environmental movement was born.
However, this image and this image are both important too. The first is the product of our recent visits to Mars. In 2004, on its 63rd Martian day, the rover Spirit caught this image in the early morning sky over Gusev crater. A close-up shows elongation which hints at the moon being imaged with Earth. It would be a stunning view in a Mars-bound telescope!
The second image is the famous "Pale Blue Dot" taken by Voyager 1 in 1991 as it departed the solar system. The image was requested of NASA by astronomer and science popularizer Carl Sagan who lobbied for a 'backward look' at the solar system. Except for Mercury, which was too close to the sun, and Pluto, which is too faint, all of the remaining planets were imaged.
As an amateur astronomer, I'm frequently confronted by people's rather limited understanding of the universe and our place in it. And I encourage them to view these pics.
It's not a condemnation. It's simply a fact that, as we go about our daily lives, we have little opportunity for the "big" thoughts. Except for a lucky few of us, our lives are confined to short distances to work or school or after-school activities with the kids. Our city skies are awash with light, hiding the stars, and we have countless distractions from the television that run from the sublime to the ridiculous to the disturbing.
Occasionally, we touch on something more. We seek higher ideals and sometimes feel we've found them in religious observances or charitable works. But sometimes, those too turn inward. In religion, we can be restricted by narrow interpretations of sacred scriptures that preclude notions of great time or close association with the natural world - opting instead for the conceit of 'special status.' Charitable works, while noble, require focus on the task at hand, even as we revel in the opportunity to improve the lives of our fellow human beings.
For me, amateur astronomy, while sometimes simply an aesthetically pleasing activity, also allows for "cosmic thoughts." Contemplating the depths and breadths of space and time, one is confronted with the fleeting span we are born, live our lives and then pass away, comparatively brief as snowflakes settling to the sun-warmed ground in a springtime flurry.
We are small. And yet, we are also unique. Each of us apparently a single event in the long, 14.7 billion year history of the cosmos. This particular arrangement of particles coming together in this particular order, perhaps creating great works of art, literature or discovering scientific or mathematical insights. Finding things thing further the evolution and development of a particular species of ape that has evolved on this small blue marble orbiting this small star in the corner of this particular galaxy which is one of billions!
And, if that doesn't grab you entirely, listen here to Carl Sagan himself put it all into perspective!
Kinda gets ya thinking, don't it!?