Communication Woes: Every young couple in love… on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The other day a friend asked me what my favourite picture was.

I had to think for a few minutes. Hmm.

I have beef with some art. Sometimes I just don’t get it.

I once stood in the national portrait gallery looking at something abstract. I was trying to see the merit of it, to see if I could “get it”. I really was trying. But I found myself saying out loud, “Well, this is bollocks”.

I was more surprised when an older aristocratic looking lady standing nearby me, wearing a wide brimmed hat and matching dress, suddenly said “Yes. Yes, I think you’re right.” and walked off.

Aaanyway, that’s not really my point.

What I actually answered with was: The pale blue dot.

Now, if you’re a (big?) popular science fan, you probably already know what the pale blue dot is. But if you don’t “The pale blue dot” is a picture taken by Voyager-1 in 1990, when it was almost 4 billion miles from Earth. That’s it, just there on the right.

See that little bluish-white speck about half way up the brownish stripe?

That’s us. Everyone.

I’m thinking this picture is my test. But before I say more about that, let me quote the late Carl Sagan, who convinced NASA to take the picture. His words describe what this means far better than mine ever would.

… 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.

How do you feel reading that, now you know what that dot represents?

Insignificant or unimportant? Scared? Isolated? Lonely? Meaningless?

Or are you in wonder at how small our little world is on a cosmic scale? Closer to the rest of humanity? Amazed at how precious life must be? Amazed at what us little humans can achieve? How petty some of our squabbles seem?

You see, that’s the thing I’ve noticed. Peoples response to this image seems to fall into one of two categories – in my own experience, I should stress – either negative and isolating, or, and I’m not sure what word I should use, but, maybe “wondrous”.

I’m in the latter category. But here’s the snag. Can you – I – communicate that point of view in such a way that you can turn  a “so alone…” into an excited “OMG“?* Or do you have to not allow time to for your reader to think and go the “so alone…” route? Will their minds already be set to, what I consider to be, the poorer way of looking at it?

I have the feeling that if I can turn the people who feel isolated, or a little scared, by what this image is and what it shows them, into people who see it as more of a joyous thing, something that brings people together more than it isolates them. That would be my barometer of choice for communicating well. At least right now, as I write this.

There’s so much stuff out there that I just think is awesome. See that picture on the left? That’s a fucking hexagon on the pole of Saturn. I’m a biochemist. That this hexagon exists blows my tiny little mind. (also see:

Each of those sides is 8,600 miles long. Larger than the diameter of the Earth. And it rotates once every 10h 39m and 24s. How? HOW?

To some, this would be “so what?” ground. These are the people I would love to change in to “wonderer’s”. Intrigued to find out more.

Of course, if I can merely communicate my own enthusiasm and curiosity for this kind of thing, then that may be enough.

And I guess rather than “Holy fucking shit! Did you know this? LOOK AT THIS!”, a more considered, eloquent and delicate approach may need to be employed…


*Yes. Yes I happen to think Scott Pilgrim is awesome…


One response to “Communication Woes: Every young couple in love… on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

  • Clem

    At the pale blue dot picture scale we only distinguish earth but there is other planet in our system solar and other system solar in our universe… And we are a looooooottttttt of human on earth so no way to feel isolated 🙂 Thanks for this picture and the excitment to see how much it remain to be discovered and understoood!

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