Last week, while working on a story about a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for a telescope that will seek out “Earth 2.0,” I found myself rereading one of my favorite essays by scientist Carl Sagan. It was inspired by the “pale blue dot” photo, a famous image of Earth taken from a distance of 4 billion miles by the spacecraft Voyager 1.
“Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us,” Sagan wrote. “On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. . . . It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.”
Sagan was a brilliant scientist and a beautiful writer, but he was wrong about one thing: Science does not erase our differences. Seeing that Earth is nothing more than a pixel of pale blue in a sea of endless black when viewed from the edge of the solar system does not invalidate the fears of those who live here on the ground. The fact that this election was just a blip in the history of humanity, that we ourselves represent a fraction of a fraction of the history of this planet, does not mitigate justified concerns about our country’s future. And if the 26 years since the world first saw that pale blue dot are any kind of indicator, knowing we all must share this dot is no guarantee we’ll learn to get along.
But science does hold us to account. It reminds us that there is no such thing as a “post-fact” world. The fundamental truths of the universe will persist in being true, regardless of what pundits and politicians may say. We ignore those truths at our own peril.
And science inspires us. It attests to the vast scale and scope of the universe. It demonstrates the beauty of curiosity, the necessity of skepticism and the power of rigorous inquiry. Just look at the Hubble image of the “pillars of creation,” or watch the motor protein kinesin walk along a microtubule inside a cell, or build a circuit at your kitchen table and witness a light turn on. What could be more profound?
Our world is a rare and precious place, and our ability to comprehend it is equally extraordinary. It’s true that science can be as dogmatic and fractional as any other human endeavor. But at its best, it is a model of what can be achieved through discipline, collaboration and a tremendous desire to know the truth. We need that model now more than ever.
I’m sure I’ll be talking politics at dinner tonight (knowing my family, it will be impossible not to). But I'll also make sure to bring up some of my favorite science stories from this year. Some are funny, some are profound, all are thought-provoking in some way.
So here they are — 10 great science stories to talk about at Thanksgiving in addition to arguing about politics. If you enjoy these pieces as much as I did, I hope you’ll talk about them, too.
The U.S. government is conducting peanut butter drone strikes to save endangered ferrets — and you can watch.