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The Privileged Planet

Guillermo Gonzalez

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Discovery is seeing what everyone else saw and thinking what no one thought.
Albert von Szent-Györgyi

On Christmas Eve, 1968, the Apollo 8 astronauts--Frank Borman, James Lovell, and William Anders--became the first human beings to see the far side of the Moon. The moment was as historic as it was perilous: they had been wrested from Earth's gravity and hurled into space by the massive, barely tested Saturn V rocket. Although one of their primary tasks was to take pictures of the Moon in search of future landing sites--the first lunar landing would take place just seven months later--many associate their mission with a different photograph, commonly known as Earthrise.

Emerging from the Moon's far side during their fourth orbit, the astronauts were suddenly transfixed by their vision of Earth, a delicate, gleaming swirl of blue and white, contrasting with the monochromatic, barren lunar horizon. Earth had never appeared so small to human eyes, yet was never more the center of attention.

To mark the event's significance and its occurrence on Christmas Eve, the crew had decided, after much deliberation, to read the opening words of Genesis: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth . . . ." The reading, and the reverent silence that followed, went out over a live telecast to an estimated one billion viewers, the largest single audience in television history.

In his recent book about the Apollo 8 mission, Robert Zimmerman notes that the astronauts had not chosen the words as parochial religious expression but rather "to include the feelings and beliefs of as many people as possible." Indeed, when the majority of Earth's citizens look out at the wonders of nature or Apollo 8's awe-inspiring Earthrise image, they see the majesty of a grand design. But a very different opinion holds that our Earthly existence is not only rather ordinary but in fact insignificant and purposeless. In his book Pale Blue Dot, the late astronomer Carl Sagan typifies this view while reflecting on another image of Earth, this one taken by Voyager 1 in 1990 from some four billion miles away:

Because of the reflection of sunlight . . . Earth seems to be sitting in a beam of light, as if there were some special significance to this small world. But it's just an accident of geometry and optics . . . . Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

Read the entire article on the Crux Magazine website (new window will open).

Posted: 1/11/05

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