Humility from Saturn

Earth, a tiny dot seen from Saturn’s rings

The image of Earth taken in 1966 by NASA from lunar orbit forever changed how we see our home and altered our fundamental self-image. That iconic image, now already a half-century old, revealed just how fragile, lonely and lovely is our planet, a diminutive cloud-wrapped rock with blue oceans, green forests and islands of artificial light engineered by one of its industrious life forms.

I couldn’t help but recall that image last week when NASA released another photo, this one courtesy of the Cassini spacecraft as it passed through Saturn’s icy rings. The photo includes a tiny dot between Saturn’s A and F rings. No, that is not a speck of dust on your screen. That is home base for you and me – our planet Earth seen from 870 million miles away. In a version with higher resolution, an even smaller dot appears to the left of Earth. That would be our moon, a lunar child out with its mother for a spin.

Embedded in the Cassini mission is a metaphor for Earth’s fragility and human mortality. Launched in 1997, Cassini reached Saturn in 2004. In September, just five months from now, after racking up some four billion space miles, Cassini’s pioneering mission will end as it crashes into Saturn and is incinerated. It opted for cremation over burial.

The 1966 image of Earth from lunar orbit and last week’s photo from Saturn are hardly the first events to force humanity to recalibrate its position in the cosmos. Around 500 B.C. Pythagoras proposed that Earth was round instead of flat. Observing the moon’s light and dark sectors as it moved through its orbital cycle, Pythagoras deduced that the moon had to be round. From there he extrapolated that Earth must also be round. Try to imagine what a radical gear shift that must have been.

Another culture-shifting event occurred in 1543 when Copernicus published his theory that Earth revolves around the sun, refuting the longstanding Ptolemaic view that our planet was the stationary center of the Universe. A century later Galileo threw his support behind Copernicus.

All these paradigm shifts prompted reactionary movements. Flat-earth devotees persisted for millennia. Religion opposed Copernicus and Galileo because denying Earth’s position as the center of the universe came uncomfortably close to questioning God’s central position of authority, not to mention that of the Pope. And conspiracy theories abounded when NASA released photos from lunar expeditions.

The photos of Earth from outer space that have appeared in my lifetime invite thoughts of insignificance, but not accompanied by despair or nihilism, at least not for me. While we are insignificant at the cosmic scale of space and time, I am thrilled that we have been endowed with a mind that can itch with curiosity and bear an imagination capacious enough to wonder at it all.

Cassini is now traveling through Saturn’s Rings

Whenever I go off on a tangent and think that I, Duane Kelly, am a big deal, a pin I can rely on to pop my balloon are photos of the heavens, otherwise known as outer space, such as we saw last week. The Catholic sage Saint Augustine (354-430 A.D.) wrote: “Do you desire to construct a vast and lofty fabric? Think first about the foundations of humility. The higher your structure is to be, the deeper must be its foundation.”

Humility is a prime human virtue, perhaps the greatest one (though humility and great probably shouldn’t share a sentence).  And I definitely am not talking about the modern humblebrag phenomenon, abetted by social media; that of the “Can you believe an idiot like me got into Stanford?” stripe.

Most adults with a penchant for ongoing learning and seeking come to appreciate the paradox that the more we learn, the more we know how little we know. Humility spins out from that insight. As it also does from faraway images of our Earth, teeming with its believers, seekers, sceptics, and dreamers.

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