Is there any one object more ubiquitous in American elementary school classrooms than a giant, pull-down map of the world? I can’t remember a single classroom from my childhood that didn’t have one mounted in the corner or rolled up above the chalkboard. These days, classrooms look different – chalkboards are now smartboards; dusty overhead projectors have been shoved in closets to make room for high tech overhead displays – but the wall maps remain. On the day I first stepped into the classroom as an elementary science teacher six years ago, I was delighted to see a map of my very own tucked above the whiteboard. I only used it a few times a year, mostly during our plate tectonics unit, but I smiled every time I tugged on the handle and a pastel rendering of our world dropped down with a satisfying sproing.
Maps have been on my mind this month. It’s been hard to avoid them. In the first days and weeks following the election, it seemed that every time we turned on the television or scroll through our newsfeeds, the electoral college map was on display – a deep red nation with sprinklings of blue around the edges. I live in one of those blue sprinkles. It’s been a lot to take in.
As a mental health exercise, my husband and I have been trying to take a break from post-election media coverage. To replace it, we’ve gone deeper into the channel guide, flipping around to old movies, cooking shows, and anything else that can offer a temporary escape. The weekend after the election, we came upon a marathon of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, the remake of Carl Sagan’s popular series now hosted by astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson. We were fans of the show when it aired, and seeing it now, we breathed a sigh of relief.
As it turned out, the episode we happened upon was the last of the series. The finale closes with a recording of Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, a speech inspired by a photograph of Earth taken from nearly 4 billion miles away by the Voyager 1 spacecraft in 1977. I felt my pulse begin to quicken as Neil de Grasse Tyson cued up the segment. Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot speech is one of my favorite passages in the English language, but I worried that my emotional state was too fragile to bear such powerful words. An image of the Earth came into view on the screen as Sagan’s iconic voice intoned, “That’s here. That’s home. That’s us.” As the recitation continued, the image zoomed out, revealing a vast universe surrounding our tiny planet.
“To my mind,” Sagan’s speech concludes, “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 and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
As expected, my eyes filled with tears. But for the first time in days, I was struck with a sense of hope. I felt re-energized, recommitted to preserving and cherishing our precious little dot.
The impact of viewing Earth from space is well documented. Of course, the effect is strongest when experienced first-hand – numerous astronauts have described a cognitive shift in perspective known as the “overview effect” that results from gazing out at our planet from space. Those who have experienced the overview effect report a sense of unity that transcends national borders and an intense desire to protect the Earth we all share.
For those of us who don’t expect to be launched into space anytime soon, even photographs can be powerful. Earthrise, one of most frequently reproduced space photographs of all time, was an image captured by the crew of Apollo 8 in 1968. Prior to Earthrise, drawings of our planet did not include clouds. Few people were accustomed to seeing an image of the globe without the demarcations of national borders. This authentic depiction of our planet, with atmosphere, land, and sea tangled together and suspended against the sharp background of black space, was more than just popular – it transformed citizens’ collective understanding of earth as a system, with all of us sharing in the responsibility of global stewardship. The two years following the Apollo 8 mission saw the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and the inaugural celebration of Earth Day. Alongside Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Earthrise has been widely cited as a “tipping point” that birthed the environmental movement of the mid-20th century.
Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot speech, and the photograph that inspired it, have been similarly impactful. The image can be found hanging on the dorm room walls of space nerds the world over. Many reproductions include an arrow pointing to the Earth with the words, “You are here.” Essentially, it’s a map. In the great cosmic vastness, it offers a sense of orientation. There we all are, sharing that tiny speck.
Maybe it’s time to update our classroom maps. Certainly, it’s important to know our place on the planet. We shouldn’t stop consulting traditional world maps, with their borders and demarcations – a thorough understanding of the geopolitical landscape is more critical than ever. But we could probably all benefit from a glance at the Pale Blue Dot map, too. What if, for just a moment, we invited our students to zoom out? To let the lines fade away, and to consider what it truly means to coinhabit this tiny planet?
In the months and years to ahead, very real concerns will be raised about environmental policies and the long-term ramifications of our current political context. The adults that live on the pale blue dot will have some tough choices to make. But in the meantime, we shouldn’t neglect the next generation. Let’s give our kids the opportunity to take a cosmic perspective. Let’s remind them, every chance we can, that we’re here. We’re home. This is us.
(This post is part of the Sinai and Synapses Discussion Forum, a collection of perspectives on specific topics. It is part of our series “When Religion Heals, When Science Heals.”)