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NASA Image Shows Earth Between the Rings of Saturn (nasa.gov)
272 points by _eric on April 24, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 94 comments

That tiny little speck in that endless blackness is us. All of the human race living on this tiny rock fighting over who owns which piece of land and whose religion is most peaceful.

All the world leaders should be spent to space to understand how insignificant we are and how petty and insignificant our disagreements are.

I think you're right in that everyone should be aware of the scale of the universe. But importance seems to be fractal in the way that electrons are important to protons, salty and sweet food is important to me, stars to planets, galaxies to universes and so on. We are important, to ourselves. And I think that's OK.

Exactly. One of the personal existential dilemmas I face regularly is reconciling the importance of the human condition with its insignificance.

I've come to decide that all the infinity of the Universe may just as well not exist if there were no sentient beings to experience it.

Even if I were immortal, and had a spaceship that could take me anywhere instantly, I would still ultimately get attached to the stories and struggles of individual beings, no matter how localized and of infinitesimal consequence they may be.

I can imagine that there must be unimaginable beauty out there; endless fields of exotic crystals, planetoids drifting through sparkling nebulas, rogue planets far away from the light of any star, islands floating in the multicolored clouds of a gas giant – even our own planet has many surreal places most people aren't even aware of, like [0] – but even such beauty would become depressing if there is no other being to share it with.

I know that this kind of thinking is a human thing; a member of a hive-mind species may probably never feel that way. An species with no biological mating, or an species where all members are identical clones, may have no concept of love or beauty.

But again, these differences between species, races, and individuals is what makes everything interesting.

[0] http://imgur.com/gallery/ql0uurU

The analogy with fractals is beautiful, and quite illuminating IMO.

Yep. Great analogy.

There's a book: Where good ideas come from.

The thesis is that most of nature is fractral and in it The author draws parallels to innovation.


If we're being honest here, I don't think most world leaders are quite as blindly caught up in our significance as the majority of humanity. If anything, world leaders play the game and understand that it's all a house of cards.

Meanwhile, the people who lack personal agency moan and thrash about wondering why we're still so ignorant, even though we're in the middle of the Great Peace, prosperity on a global level is rising rapidly, and our ability to explore the stars is just beginning.

> If we're being honest here, I don't think most world leaders are quite as blindly caught up in our significance as the majority of humanity.

They're all small fish trying to reduce the size of the pond they're in so they seem bigger.

What do you expect out of creatures that were molded by billions of years of evolution? If their ancestors hadn't been willing to fight over pieces of that rock, whether that willingness came from genetics or culture, they wouldn't be here today. I'm not aware of any good reason to believe that's about to change.

Environment is changing. Fighting over pieces of that rock may be less beneficial in our age. Evolution will teach us to change.

Could you expand on that?

While I'm not the OP, I believe I get his point:

With the environment changing so do the evolutionary advantages that come with the environment. In that regard, an evolutionary trait that is considered disadvantageous in one environment might be actually advantageous in a different environment.

Case in point: Humans fighting over rocks.

When there were only a few humans around but lots of "good rocks" to fight over, being competitive for the few humans might have been an advantage. Because there had been enough "good rocks" around so everybody could get their own piece of rock if they compete and some can even get more than just one rock.

Now change the ratio between humans and "good rocks", whether that be because there are a lot more humans than there used to be or because there are far fewer "good rocks" around to compete for or simply a combination of both.

In such a scenario competition for the sole ownership these few remaining "good rocks" between big numbers of humans, might be a massive resource waste compared to a more cooperative approach that doesn't pit everybody against each other for a scarce resource.

It may certainly be a massive resource waste compared to an idealized system where everyone chooses to selflessly cooperate. But what is going to happen to the people in your scenario who choose not to compete for control over a slice of the rock when other people continue to compete for control over a slice of the rock?

Well, that's the issue: The people not choosing to compete and instead seeking cooperation will be at an individual disadvantage compared to those that compete, so it's hard to get people to cooperate on a massive scale because it's often a rather selfless act. Why cooperate and share, when you can just be greedy and keep it all for yourself with no obvious disadvantage to yourself?

But this results in kinda a chicken&egg problem: If nobody cooperates then we are wasting resources and effort, but if only some people cooperate they put themselves in a disadvantageous position, compared to the remaining competitors, and will have a hard time pulling trough.

The people not choosing to compete and instead seeking cooperation will be at an individual disadvantage compared to those that compete, so it's hard to get people to cooperate on a massive scale because it's often a rather selfless act.

This is not an insurmountable problem by any means. Group competition occurs on a variety of levels. Nations compete. Ethnic groups compete. Political parties compete. Businesses compete. Individuals compete. When competing as groups, there just need to be benefits shared among the group (i.e. a reason for people to be a part of the group) and ways to punish free-riding (i.e. ways to prevent people from receiving the benefits of the group while not contributing to the group).

The point I'm making, though, is that if any of those entities chooses not to compete with other like entities, it will dwindle into irrelevance or die out. That entity will not be making the world a better place by choosing not to compete. Instead it will simply be replaced by other such entities which are more inclined to put their own interests first, as has happened to countless other nations, ethnic groups, political factions, businesses, and individuals that did not compete successfully for whatever reason.

how it used to be: you fight, win and get some rewards or loose and leave with a bleeding nose. How it is now: you fight and everybody dies from nuclear / bio / nano / .. weapon.

Successfully competing for a slice of the rock means not getting wiped out. Billions of people are currently competing in this fashion.

> All the world leaders should be spent to space

You know what I'm afraid of? Some country's leader will go up there, see their bit, and think "All the rest of that should be mine."

I agree with your sentiment, but writing it is based on the assumption that all people are like you (or us) in our sense of goals and community. It's not true.

Still, I have often heard that people change their view of the "world", once they had an impressive experience regarding our place in the universe. After people are "infected" by the "space virus", and often adjust their priorities. Of course, that might more more correlation than causation.

But I still like the idea that people can be cured from megalomania by a quick trip to the moon, the space station, or by just driving up and down one of our space elevators.

It's probably worth noting that all the humans who have been in space have had a deep commitment to science and risked their lives for it.

When space tourism becomes a thing, then I guess we'll see...

That would actually be awesome! If they spend money on creating the technology to go up there and claim it all, along the way we will learn and advance so much, just like the rush for getting to the moon.

So size is the most critical aspect of significance?

Excellent observation.

Most critical? Maybe not. But it is undoubtedly very much a significant and underrecognized factor.

The Overview Effect is a real thing: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Overview_effect

I've always thought the Overview Effect is a cognitive error, but it has this cloud of piety surrounding it "because astronauts".

At its best, it inspires calls to environmentalism (the fragility of the Earth), but at its worst, and it's usually at its worst, it inspires nihilistic Carl Saganisms like the Pale Blue Dot.

How is Pale Blue Dot in any way nihilistic? I feel like you missed the point of the entire thing if the message you got was one of hopelessness.

I mean it is a bit nihilist but again just calling something nihilist doesn't invalidate it. I agree The way he[Carl Sagan] weighs it is the way that I think people should view this idea. Instead of taking it to believe nothing matters, take it as a means to strive to do better, to see the only barriers that prevent our civilization from accomplishing greatness are artificial.

Because you could insert any other human concern into those enumerated in "Pale Blue Dot", and they become just as easily diminished. Like human rights, for instance. Who cares about female genital mutilation - after all, Betelgeuse is huge, man! Who cares about something as small as a clitoris?

See, I have always considered that it had the opposite effect - by looking at the big picture, putting things in perspective and calling for a more humanistic outlook on life, it inspires empathy and action towards "making the world a better place". Far from trivializing widespread issues such as the ones you pointed out.

But then again, you already acknowledged this out in your previous comment, and I get that here you were just trying to explain what you thought the alternative was.

This is how I take it too. Sagan isn't saying that all human problems are insignificant or unimportant, but it's entirely true that many of the things we fight over and even kill each other over are, when put into perspective, pretty stupid. The whole point is to take a step back and carefully evaluate things as a first course of action and to try to save conflict and aggression for situations where it's meaningful and likely to make a positive impact in the bigger picture.

I agree with other commenter that the overview effect is real but an error. Just because earth is smaller than Saturn doesn't make it insignificant, or make our concerns - wars, religions, reality TV and all - petty. There is absolutely nothing of significance in Saturn that compares to what we have on earth. Significance can't even exist without life.

The thrust of Sagan's monologue was to encourage re-evaluation of religiously-motivated anthropocentrism.

To me, at least, it's less of "how could anything here matter when Saturn is so big?" and more of "does it really seem plausible that this vast universe was created for the benefit of some creatures on the surface of this little speck? Do you really think we're that special?"

Certainly it's possible to ride the Overview Effect all the way to nihilism, but it seems clear to me that unexamined anthropocentrism is at least as incorrect.

Intoxication is real as well, but I rarely apply any of my drunken epiphanies when sober.

I understand what point you are trying to make, but it's hardly a fitting analogy, and I don't think it's a fair point.

One is a short-lasting altered state of consciousness.

The other is an idea, a change of perspective that can inspire action and positive lifestyle change. Or perhaps a descent into nihilism, depending on circumstance.

A lot of astronauts had a pretty life changing experience when looking at the earth from cosmos. So much so that there a name for this phenomena called "the overview effect" [1]

[1] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Overview_effect

In the 70s all the media seemed fascinated with that photo of Earth from the Moon (and spent the decade throwing it at us at every conceivable opportunity). Something tells me this one won't be quite so popular, though it might be more illustrative in some ways.

No. Somebody that would realize that by going to space would already be a decent person on earth.

You say this because you already have a perspective on things.

This comment leaves me in a void state. There's so much emptiness.The density of our population in a metropolitan city, is insignificant when you think of it at the scale of space.

I just picture me as one of trillions of rocks going around at an extreme velocity around the Saturn ring. Each rock represents a violent pass of this galaxy. We also know there's a black hole in the center of this galaxy, let alone we have many mores across the whole galaxy. What's even more void is this universe is so big, so big, so big we can't even know what's out there. What's with this tiny dot in this universe doing? So much life so much memory so much humanity, yet, we are so tiny. Indeed, we are so insignificant.

Turn our attention back on Earth. Every step we take every air we breathe, every rock we see, has a history. Our ancestors walked on our lands, all sorts of amusing creatures once lived on this planet. What's beneath us are the remaining and the history of planet Earth. Our petroleum oil is the product of the past living organisms. Years from now, our decedents will walk on this land like we do today, wondering about their ancestors' past, what they did, how they lived, amused at our modern fashion taste and our modern technology.

Are we the only intelligent organism out there? Is there another universe? As the universe expands, what does it mean? What's actually space and time without all the mathematics? Can we even picture what it is like for the universe to stretch, like a force field / shield expanding? Could we rewind to the past like in sci-fi movies? Can you imagine what it is like to have hundreds of billions of galaxies around us? Going to M31 would probably take at least 10M years at 60mph.

As I am writing this, new stars are borning, some other stars are about to explode, some stars and planetary objects are ripping apart by black holes, galaxies are ripping each other apart as they collide crossing each other's path, our space explorers out there are watching and analyzing the space out there, and other people whom I may not know are dying on this planet Earth. Mysterious forces are every where. Most importantly, our Sun is heading to a dying state like all of us, eventually the Sun will burn out and as it burns out, the temperature will rise to the point we can't survive on this planet. Eventually we will have total darkness and total coldness here, some billion years from now. Oh, and our planet is four billions old, and this modern human civilization is only roughly 5,000 years ago and "humans" probably around 3-5M years. Our legacy our human world may collapse due to human conflicts or due to cosmetic events, and then maybe we will turn into natural resources too. M31 is approaching and billion years from now we will be in another galaxy collision event. Perhaps the cycle will repeat.

We think everything in this natural world has one order: there's a beginning and there's an end state. But this perception isn't true at all. Our chemical compositions never lost, they just become other things, over time. Some of our human ancestors think when people die they become a star and at night they will shine and look after the livings. Those who died before us are already decomposing and becoming part of everything we experience every day. It isn't far stretch to say those stars out there, trillion miles away from us, perhaps did make up of other living creatures before us, and trillion years from now, our photon, might escape and able to travel to other stars.

This is depressing.

I'm also in awe of the universe, but I come away encouraged. Psalm 8 looks at these same thoughts from a different perspective. We are infinitesimally small, but not unknown.

Thank you for exposing me to the Psalm, I found it beautiful.

There is something about ancient texts and mythology that when put in a juxtaposition with modern advancements truly makes me appreciate humanity and how far we've come. It adds a completely new emotional layer to it, dare I say spiritual?

I hope one day I'll have the time to read the Bible, purely out of intellectual curiosity and historical appreciation.

I blame the Civilization series.

I highly recommend it; definitely worth the time. Just be warned that you might just fall in love with Jesus. I did.

> Going to M31 would probably take at least 10M years at 60mph.

This is a drastic underestimate. Going to M31 would take about 10M years at one-fifth the speed of light (since M31 is about 2M light years away). One-fifth the speed of light is 37,256 miles per second, or about 134 million miles per hour. So at 60 mph, it would take about 2 million times longer, or about 20 trillion years.

Thanks. I think I did the calculation wrong.

Yep. The universe is cosmic horror.

But hey, I've got an alright view of a really pretty tree right now!

The way I see it, it's all meaningless, so live it up and enjoy it while you can! Be kind to others on your way out.

  That's here. That's home. That's us.


I like the rendition of that quote at the end of the COSMOS documentary series.

And interestingly, this is the second great 'putting things in perspective' shot taken by Cassini.

The first: https://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/resources/5915/

> This image is part of a growing catalogue of "propeller" moons... Continued monitoring of these objects may lead to direct observations of the interaction between a disk of material and embedded moons. Such interactions help scientists understand fundamental principles of how solar systems formed from disks of matter.

I urgently need a refresher on astronomy so I can have an intelligent discussion about space with 6-year olds. So much has happened since last time I took it in high school.

My oldest is four and I feel this way about everything. They accidentally ask really tough questions constantly. There's no need to go to space for the tough stuff.

This morning: "How to people know there's grass?"

I managed to appease her with a crappy explanation of how sight works (just saying "we see it" didn't fly—we were in the car or I wouldn't have tried being so lazy) but hot damn there's a lot going on there. Like, about 1/3 of philosophy and some good chunks of physics/optics, (neuro-)biology, psychology, chemistry, et c. I'm way too dumb for this job!

You could always answer, "How do you know there's you?"

Never too early to trigger existential crisis!

She already started asking tough questions about mortality at a disturbingly-young age (like: two). Fortunately she's decided all on her own that reaching old age leads to some kind of reincarnation (she seems certain that at some point after I get old I'll be a kid again and can play with toys and go to school and such, for instance), so her psyche is safe for now. No need to throw any more curveballs her way. We're right on the edge as it is, haha.

If you can share a thirst for knowledge, a love of learning and a constant curiosity she'll be fine! You don't need to know the answers to everything, she just needs to know asking questions is fun.

I found this lecture series very good, and touching in an approachable way on a lot of current work in astronomy: http://oyc.yale.edu/astronomy/astr-160

Algebra is used, but no heavy math. It's more about the concepts and astronomical/astrophysical viewpoint.

Check out "crash course astronomy" on youtube. Quite entertaining.

Yep, that little dot in the sea of infinity is our little blue marble. No one have ever been more than a pixel (EDIT: a couple hundred pixels) distant from it, and soon even that achievement would fade from living memory.

Earth in this image has a diameter of around 5 pixels. So each pixel here is around 2500 km (as diameter of earth is around 12700 km [1])

Farthest human has been is 400,000 km [2]. So the farthest we have ever been is around 160 pixels.

[1] https://www.google.co.in/search?q=diameter+of+earth&oq=diame...

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_spaceflight_records#Fa...

The distance from earth to the moon is 384,400 km, and in the smaller detail picture that earth to moon distance is about 23 pixels. Or about 16,700 km per pixel.

And note they describe that small picture as "zoomed in", So I figure 400km is about 23 or maybe 24 pixels at most =D (or a diameter of less than 50 pixels).

Waiting for someone to find an even better estimation!

You are overlooking one major thing: From the perspective of the camera, the position of the moon relative to the earth matters for the number of pixels. For example, if the moon was directly between the earth and the camera, the earth-to-moon distance in pixels would be 0, but the real distance would still be ~384.400km.

You cannot use the earth-to-moon distance, unless you also know the exact position of the camera, earth and moon in the 3D plane.

Does this pedantry really change the meaning of Artlav's statement?

Please don't put down accuracy.

Well, we've been a bit farther away than a single pixel :) The moon is also visible in the photo (and appears to be closer to Earth than it actually is because the Moon-Earth-Saturn angle was not 90 degrees when Cassini took this picture).

Ah, i see. I thought the Moon was unresolved within the dot, not the faint dot to the left. :(

To be fair, the Earth-Moon separation as seen from Saturn is about one arcminute, just at the limit of the angular resolution of human eye. To a human they wouldn't be discernible as separate objects. Cassini's camera has a much narrower field of view.

> The spacecraft captured the view on April 12, 2017

That's the anniversary of the first human spaceflight, celebrated as Yuri's Night (and also, awesomely, my birthday):

> Yuri's Night is named for the first human to launch into space, Yuri Gagarin, who flew the Vostok 1 spaceship on April 12, 1961.


It's a bit trippy to look at that picture, and realize that literally everything I know exists in that one little spec. It's cosmically humbling.

Humbling is good. On the other hand, I feel proud to live on the only planet we know of that has managed to take a selfie.

We have already made plenty of selfies, even before the word was a thing.

The Pale Blue dot. It's where we keep all our stuff.

The two most likely outcomes are humans will expand into the stars or we go extinct (or we're already in the former and this is just a simulation).

This reminded me of "The Pale Blue Dot" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2pfwY2TNehw

And there is also this beauty with Earth visible: https://saturn.jpl.nasa.gov/resources/3315/

I know Cassini isn't really the point of this particular image, but was reading over the weekend about all of its accomplishments. It is quite amazing how much that one program has achieved - and if we eventually find life on Enceladus it will be just one more.

For me, this picture doesn't say that Earth is small and insignificant. It merely says that Saturn is very far away from Earth.

Aka NASA's gentle reminder to clean my monitor. Amazing image.

Makes me think of The Expanse series (http://www.jamessacorey.com/). Hard sci-fi, no warp/ftl, no artificial gravity, etc; all takes place within the solar system.

It's probably the best show the SyFy channel has ever aired: http://www.syfy.com/theexpanse

Such an inspiring and humbling image. Philosophical crisis beginning in 3 2 1...

Man, I don't get why everyone's saying that we're insignificant because of this photo.

As far as we know, we're the most exciting thing going on in this corner of the universe. There is probably no other place that has conscious beings in that photo. We are massively important, primarily because we can recognize our own importance.

This isn't to say it isn't good to be humble. It certainly can be. But we're pretty damn incredible.

Anyone else recently read that there may be the possibility of life on Saturn's moon Enceladus within it's hydrothermal vents?

He is a heretic, claiming there is not a giant eye watching us behind the crystal sky. To the sulphur stake with him.

This may be a silly question, but where are all of the stars? This image is amazing! I love that you can even see the moon. When I saw this I thought, if I can see the earth and its moon clearly from Saturn, then I should be able to see Saturn and her moons from Earth (then I remembered all of the stars, and how hard it would be to make that out in the night sky).

Most cameras only have a range of brightness they can pickup. The rings of Saturn and the Earth are very bright compared to the background stars.

The camera is set to let only a little light in, perhaps by having a shorter exposure or something similar. Not enough light comes in to make out the stars but the brighter objects come through clearly.

If they more light, even to see the stars then the brighter objects would appears whitewashed with brightness and may even otherwise interfere with the photo.

Beautiful picture. I also like this stoic meditation, it reminds me what is real https://philosophy-of-cbt.com/2011/08/13/the-view-from-above...

I don't understand exactly why all space pictures are black and white.

There are hi-res cameras that are smaller than a coin now available to consumers, so I can't even imagine what could be used by scientists.

Is it because they need to be transmitted back to earth, and 1 channel would be better than 4?

It's because monochromatic filters would allow for a much larger portion of the incident light to be captured than if there were multiple filters active in different wavelengths at the same time (which you would need for color photography).

Those filters are typically wheels that are rotated mechanically.

Yup - it's a higher priority to capture visible, infrared and ultraviolet.

Plus, the design of Cassini design of Cassini started in the 1980s and many of the part decisions would have been made then - even then they would have favored rugged, tried-and true technology over anything cutting edge. Actual launch was 1997.

But wouldn't color allow to observe the features a lot better?

To me you lose a lot of details when you remove the color (although I would think there isn't a lot of color in space).

Color isn't so much removed as it is filtered out to improve the sensitivity in other bands. By filtering out visible light (or least, most of it) other bands can be imaged with much higher sensitivity (but it is also possible just to filter out a visible band of the spectrum for imaging).

Just like you can't see IR right now with the naked eye but you could see a BW print of an IR filtered image (that's a 'false color' image, technically that term should be reserved for images that show other wavelengths as colors that we can interpret). The same goes for UV.

A lot of astronomical imaging is done in wavelengths we can not observe directly. Almost all those 'pretty color pictures from space' are false color images.

Another important bit is that for the most part space is the same on that scale today as it is tomorrow, so if you want to make several images of the same object with different filters you usually can without much in terms of loss of opportunity. For some configurations and objects nearer to us that is more problematic but for objects further away time is on our side.

The furthest example of this is radio telescopes, which image the sky using radio waves, waves so long that they are no longer called 'light'. And yet, we can make really nice images by shifting those radio frequencies to the visible spectrum allowing us to 'see' with radio waves.

Good explanation, thanks.

I've seen earth beams sparkle between the rings of Saturn.

Marvelous image.

What I thought was stars in the background, was actually dust on my monitor.

What I thought was dust on my monitor, was actually the moon.

In other words, we're totally insignificant. Happy Monday!

Nasa is showing a lot of imaginary photos through our history. They start to be a tad over pushing things and sometimes I wonder how much is just a photoshop works and make believe "facts"..

Shaq here, a MVP and 4 times NBA championships. That dot looks convincingly flat to me, not round.

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