Pale Blue Dot

Carl Sagan is generally remembered as someone who popularized Science, translating its findings into everyday terms and making it compelling. Less appreciated, I think, is that he was an ardent Humanist. He understood the perils that our technology and historical foolishness posed, yet still held out hope that humanity could reach its potential and expand peacefully into space.

Two things struck me about this book, which was published in 1994. First, there is clear, unapologetic discussion of global warming. To Sagan, there wasn’t even a controversy. He helped elaborate the science behind models of climate change, based in particular on our findings at the planet Venus. I’d known all this, but to hear “global warming” discussed matter-of-factly by a scientist 20 years ago — not as a theory but as an imminent challenge facing humanity — told a lot about the violence that the Bush Administration has done to scientific discourse.

Second, Sagan looks at the big picture. He sees the challenges facing us as a species as perhaps typical of most planetary civilizations at a certain stage of technology. We have mastered tools which can save or destroy the planet, but we have not yet mastered ourselves. Sagan treats at length the question of whether we deserve to explore and colonize other solar systems, when we have wreaked such havoc here at home. His answer, which I find elegant, is that the vast distances between stars make them unreachable without a certain level of technological achievement. The timescale of such developments is much longer than the time we have to avoid any number of self-inflicted catastrophes here on Earth. In short, we are forced to survive ourselves in order to survive to the stars.

It is refreshing, and inspirational, to accompany Sagan on his flights of fancy about the human future. Although his rhapsodizing may annoy some, and though he fails to account for certain disruptive developments like Artificial Intelligence and nanotechnology, one fact remains: we need more scientists — more humans — like Carl Sagan. We need men and women with a firm grasp of Science, an ear for poetry, and a belief that humans have not yet expressed their full potential. Our future may depend on it. [New York: Random House]

The many become one, and are increased by one.

Ash is in the air
All the little children are leaving.
Look around you:
the last great migration’s

There was never a promise
– no rainbow from God –
that we would die in a warm feather bed.
All the businessmen melt,
and the generals huddle.
They’re at their best when the meat
begins to boil.

A woman at the spaceport
sniffs the air and gags.
West wind is coughing pine,
the ruptured muck of forests:
grub-flesh stink and blister-singe.

Ash swarms down like hornets.

Then the asphalt heaves,
and in the whipping trees
the monkeys, pissing, howl!
at the great machines. This is

not another Ice Age.
Plant your feet – you can feel it spinning
It is the violet doorway
the vortex through the Human.

Something wafts above the stinking hordes,


Let me be Human.
Give me the vision to proceed
and the strength to step forward
I am weak
and the grasses of the Imagination
blow in a welcoming breeze.
Dry my brow of its sweat
let me stand erect
and know what it is that is asked.

The road stretches open
across gray, gray soil
and the weight of heaven
is a chorus
chanting gentle and relentless
in my ear
To be free
of what causes fear:
things forgotten
and rued, in darkness
nausea and itching regret.
Let me be.

The Millenium: A Metaphor

This is a time of wild speculation. An increasing number of people sense that the human race is approaching a critical evolutionary juncture. It is not because humans as a whole are “more evolved” than before, nor is it taken for granted that we will survive the transition. It is as though our technology, our philosophy, our art and our religion are being drawn together towards some break point in the future. It will not be the result of any one idea or program or proposal. The change will emerge as a complex feedback loop, launching the species into a whole new epigenetic orbit.

All we have are metaphors. Consider, then, the image of a wall. We are walking along a wall. We’ve been walking along this wall for a long, long time, so that the road ahead has always seemed more or less the same. Sure, the texture of the wall changes, there are objects on the ground to discover, but the wall itself is a given. People who talk about an end to the wall are considered deluded, their views relegated to religion and crack science. What evidence is there that the wall will not always be there? It’s absurd to think of. Still others claim to have found cracks in the wall, or windows, through which they’ve seen incredible things. The wall is not just a wall, they say, it’s part of a larger structure — there is something going on here. They too are laughed at; most people peering through the cracks see only darkness. But the concept of an end to the wall persists.

Eventually, people begin to sense that there is something strange about the road ahead. The wall looks different, somehow, up in the distance. Speculation soars. If there is an end to the wall, then our ceaseless walking will inevitably bring us to it. Most people have always assumed that the end of the wall will be the end of everything; the wall is the only constant in their world — it IS their world. If it ends, what else is there? They can’t conceive of any movement except along the wall. But as the anomaly grows nearer, some people begin to think: what if the end of the wall is really a corner? What if the the mystics and the seers were right, and the wall was just the edge of a much larger space? A corner implies a new dimension, a radical new direction to in which to travel. A corner IS an end, in one sense, but only of the old direction of travel. After it is turned, the journey continues — into fundamentally new territory.

What some people are proposing is that time is like this wall. It is not just a line, but a structure. Time has a texture to it, and it is usually fairly small, not enough to distract us from the continuous forward flow. But the slightest amount of texture implies that there is a dimension of change which runs perpendicular to what we call time. This, in turn, implies the possibility of a corner. Mystical and psychedelic visions are glimpses of the larger structure, explorations of the SPACE in which what we call time is just a LINE. Hyperspace, Eternity: we live on a line, and can’t think of anything not on that line, even as it twists and shimmies through dimensions inconceivable to the human imagination.

Biocultural evolution seems more and more like an attempt to leave this line, to break free from the constraints of space and time. Developments in transportation and communication increasingly transcend issues of distance and delay. Recording technologies change the idea of time, of past and present. The planet is linking up: cyberspace is being terraformed. With enough connections in place, a new structure begins to emerge, as if we were playing some global game of connect-the-dots. The monkey wants to leave its tree.

This is not, however, a celebration of technology as something unquestionably good. We may destroy ourselves while still in the transition phase. Some of the most cherished aspects of the human may disappear into the transhuman condition. No one really knows what to expect; no one has the master plan, and new tools are not always used by skilled and responsible hands. We have unleashed processes that we do not know how to control, which will kill us if we can’t surf their waves. There is also the issue of preparedness. We must make our minds flexible. Without understanding, our minds may die of shock when we turn a corner we thought could never exist.