The Frontier Is Everywhere

I have always been an amateur cosmologist at heart; the mathematical rigors of real physics have always bored and vexed me, but the conceptual ideas surrounding our universe are, well, more interesting than anything we could ever possibly invent ourselves. The trouble with storytelling is, I suppose, that all stories are like many other stories, and even the most extraordinary ones are so familiar that, by all rights, we shouldn’t ever be in awe of them. Still, what seems the most pedestrian, the most quotidien, the most mundane has, somewhere in it, the threads of the fantastic. No matter how dull a life and its story seem, it is, after all, the result of the wildest and most unlikely circumstances: that this person—of all possible people—was ever born, that the Earth existed to allow that birth, that the universe ever burst into existence to accommodate this one, very small, planet.

No one knew this better than Carl Sagan, and certainly no one ever has—and perhaps ever will—be able to relate it better than him. Anyone who’s seen his series Cosmos has felt his voice under their skin, tugging at the most fantastic phantoms of possibility within their minds. Sagan was a sorcerer, and like all good magicians, the real trick was that there was no trick: he just moved his hands in the way any human being can and pulled the most brilliant, glimmering quarter from behind your ear. Whether it had been behind your ear the whole time or cradled in his dexterous hands is besides the point—it was there, somewhere, all along.

This video, cobbled together from NASA footage by an ardent fan of the agency’s scientific aims and underwhelmed by their translation of it to the (tax-paying) layman, does exactly the same thing: it brings images you’ve seen together with words you may or may not have heard, and shows you something that was there all along, just beyond your periphery but completely within your field of vision. You just never looked in the right direction. It’s stunning to watch this video and think of the small salary we Americans give one of the greatest scientific institutions the world has ever spawned in comparison to our humongous—and ultimately fruitless, economically—expenditures on figuring out just how to collect enough weaponry to shatter the planet into pieces. It’s the kind of video that Carl Sagan himself would have loved.

The video ends with this passage—which is, like the entire narration, from Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot:

“Our remote descendants, safely arrayed on many worlds through the solar system—and beyond—will be unified: by their common heritage, by their regard for their home planet, and by the knowledge that, whatever other life may be, the only humans in all the universe come from earth. They will gaze up and strain to find the blue dot in their skies. They will marvel at how vulnerable the repository of all our potential once was; how perilous our infancy; how humble our beginnings; how many rivers we had to cross before we found our way.”

Patrick Hipp writes about New York City for a living and is finishing the novel he started during National Novel Writing Month 2007.