British historian Robert Robert Poole’s book, Earthrise: How Man First Saw the Earth, is an extraordinary account of two iconic photographs that captured the imagination of the whole world.
On December 24, 1968, NASA’s Apollo 8 spacecraft sent two images to earth; one, the “Pale Blue Dot” made famous by Carl Sagan’s book by that name, and “Earthrise,” the cover picture of Poole’s book. The sight of earth rising over the moon was as majestic as it was humbling; the “pale blue dot” gave us a more accurate sense of how we fit into the cosmic order. It could no longer be assumed that earth was in any sense the center of the cosmos; these images demonstrated the fact that we occupy a very small planet in one corner of one galaxy among millions of other galaxies.
In his excellent book, Poole narrates the unusual circumstances that led to these extraordinary photographs. Poet Archibald MacLeish wrote an essay after the appearance of Earthrisethat captures the way they stirred the human psyche:
For the first time in all of time, men have seen the Earth. Seen it not as continents or oceans from the little distance of a hundred miles or two or three, but seen it from the depths of space; seen it whole and round and beautiful and small… To see the Earth as it truly is, small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats, is to see ourselves as riders on the Earth together, brothers on that bright loveliness in the eternal cold—brothers who know that they are truly brothers.
Indeed, the pervading sense of kinship and fragility these photographs engendered fundamentally changed the way people saw themselves in relationship to one another. It was no longer possible for reflective people to consider their internecine warfare and tribal allegiances rational; the planet on which those conflicts play out is just too small, vulnerable, fragile. This sentiment was captured ideally in the following poetic essay from Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space.
“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”
Sagan was a visionary with great poetic imagination as well as a groundbreaking scientist. His words have clear implications for the human species: We are clearly a single family; attempts to divide us by race, class, religion and tribe are ultimately misbegotten. Poole’s book on this important object lesson for humanity is well worth the read.