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A look back at our pale, blue dot

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NASA’s Cassini spacecraft captured this view of planet Earth as a point of light between the icy rings of Saturn on April 12, 2017. (Courtesy NASA)
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Last month, as it began the final phase of its 13-year exploration of Saturn, the Cassini spacecraft sent back a picture of its home planet. While not visually dazzling, I thought the photo was profound.

There, in the jet-black gap between two icy rings of Saturn, is a tiny dot. That dot is Earth. Our home. Although there’s no detail visible in the dot, NASA says the southern Atlantic Ocean was facing Cassini when the photo was taken. This is what Earth looks like from 870 million miles away.

There are no continents visible in the photo. No oceans. No countries. No boundaries. All the differences and conflicts we think are so important can’t be seen. This pale, blue dot we call home stands alone (except for the Moon, of course), surrounded by the unforgiving nothingness of space. It truly is all we have.

I’ve often thought it was no coincidence that the environmental movement took off in the late 1960s and early ’70s. That was when NASA released the first photos of Earth taken from the Moon. We saw our home, with its blue oceans, tan continents and white swirls of clouds, as a small speck in the vast blackness of space. It was the first time we truly saw Earth as a planet, not just a collection of people and continents. Especially when compared to the gray, airless, lifeless Moon, we couldn’t help but realize that Earth is something precious that should be protected and preserved.

We humans tend to think we’re the center of the universe. We’re the best, the smartest, the greatest. This exaggerated conceit has been used to justify wars, intolerance and environmental degradation.

When we’re young, with a childish worldview, we think the world revolves around us. As we age, we learn that is not the case. We see that each of us is just one part of the larger whole of human society, just one part of the larger fabric of life on this planet.

Similarly, over time, scientists have learned the reality of our place in the cosmos. We now know we live on a tiny planet that orbits an ordinary star located in an out-of-the-way section of a galaxy that is, itself, just one of billions of galaxies in a universe that modern cosmology suggests may not be the only universe that exists. No matter how big we may think we are, the universe is much bigger.

From this cosmic perspective, the differences between people just aren’t significant. Humans share a genetic kinship with all life on Earth, the result of evolving on the same planet from common ancestors billions of years ago.

You and the person sitting next to you on the bus have 99.9 percent of the same genes. Humans and cows share 80 percent of the same genes. Even bananas have about 60 percent of the same genes as humans! In a cosmic sense, no matter the species, we are all first and foremost Earthlings.

Yet, some leaders still try to capitalize on the exaggerated human conceit that we are the best, the greatest, the center of the universe. These politicians highlight the differences between people, pitting group against group. For short-term personal or political gain, they exploit the natural world and ignore problems that threaten the environment that sustains life on our planet.

That’s why I found Cassini’s photo so profound. It shows us Earth not as we often think of it, but rather as the rest of the cosmos sees it: a pale, blue dot in the cold vastness of space.

Astronomer Carl Sagan once said that seeing the Earth from a distance “underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

Cassini’s photo couldn’t have come at a better time.

Sally Stephens is an animal, park and neighborhood activist who lives in the West of Twin Peaks area.

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