BY MARIA POPOVA
Perspective to lift the blinders of our cultural moment.
It has been a difficult year — politically, personally. Through it all, I have found solace in taking a more telescopic view — not merely on the short human timescale of my own life, looking back on having lived through a Communist dictatorship and having seen poems composed and scientific advances made under such tyrannical circumstances, but on far vaster scales of space and time.
When I was growing up in Bulgaria, a great point of national pride — and we Bulgarians don’t have too many — was that an old Bulgarian folk song had sailed into space aboard the Voyager spacecraft, the 1977 mission NASA launched with the scientific objective of photographing the planets of the outer solar system, which furnished the very first portrait of our cosmic neighborhood. Human eyes had never before been laid on the arresting aquamarine of Uranus, on Neptune’s stunning deep-blue orb, on the splendid fury of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot — a storm more than threefold the size of our entire planet, raging for three hundred years, the very existence of which dwarfs every earthly trouble.
But the Voyager also had another, more romantic mission. Aboard it was the Golden Record — a time-capsule of the human spirit encrypted in binary code on a twelve-inch gold-plated copper disc, containing greetings in the fifty-four most populist human languages and one from the humpback whales, 117 images of life on Earth, and a representative selection of our planet’s sounds, from an erupting volcano to a kiss to Bach — and that Bulgarian folk song.
Bulgaria is an old country — fourteen centuries old, five of which were spent under Ottoman yoke. This song, sung by generations of shepherdesses, encodes in its stunning vocal harmonies both the suffering and the hope with which people lived daily during those five centuries. You need not speak Bulgarian in order to receive its message, its essence, its poetic truth beyond the factual details of history, in the very marrow of your being.
Carl Sagan, who envisioned the Golden Record, had precisely that in mind — he saw the music selection as something that would say about us what no words or figures could ever say, for the stated objective of the Golden Record was to convey our essence as a civilization to some other civilization — one that surmounts the enormous improbabilities of finding this tiny spacecraft adrift amid the cosmic infinitude, of having the necessary technology to decode its message and the necessary consciousness to comprehend it.
But the record’s unstated objective, which I see as the far more important one, was to mirror what is best of humanity back to itself in the middle of the Cold War, at a time when we seemed to have forgotten who we are to each other and what it means to share this fragile, symphonic planet.
When the Voyager completed its exploratory mission and took the last photograph — of Neptune — NASA commanded that the cameras be shut off to conserve energy. But Carl Sagan had the idea of turning the spacecraft around and taking one final photograph — of Earth. Objections were raised — from so great a distance and at so low a resolution, the resulting image would have absolutely no scientific value. But Sagan saw the larger poetic worth — he took the request all the way up to NASA’s administrator and charmed his way into permission.
And so, on Valentine’s Day of 1990, just after Bulgaria’s Communist regime was finally defeated after nearly half a century of reign, the Voyager took the now-iconic image of Earth known as the “Pale Blue Dot” — a grainy pixel, “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam,” as Sagan so poetically put it when he immortalized the photograph in his beautiful “Pale Blue Dot” monologue from Cosmos — that great masterwork of perspective, a timeless reminder that “everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was… 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” lived out their lives on this pale blue dot. And every political conflict, every war we’ve ever fought, we have waged over a fraction of this grainy pixel barely perceptible against the cosmic backdrop of endless lonesome space.
In the cosmic blink of our present existence, as we stand on this increasingly fragmented pixel, it is worth keeping the Voyager in mind as we find our capacity for perspective constricted by the stranglehold of our cultural moment. It is worth questioning what proportion of the news this year, what imperceptible fraction, was devoted to the 2017 Nobel Prize in Physics, awarded for the landmark detection of gravitational waves — the single most significant astrophysical discovery since Galileo. After centuries of knowing the universe only by sight, only by looking, we can now listen to it and hear echoes of events that took place billions of lightyears away, billions of years ago — events that made the stardust that made us.
I don’t think it is possible to contribute to the present moment in any meaningful way while being wholly engulfed by it. It is only by stepping out of it, by taking a telescopic perspective, that we can then dip back in and do the work which our time asks of us.