The Incomplete Guide to Life on Earth
Imagine, if you would, that you are working for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. This is to say, you are working for NASA. Go you! Congratulations! You have wanted to work at NASA your entire life, and now, as you look out the window, you can see the launch pad, the rocket and the symbol of your dreams! You think about how awesome this is. You feel lucky to be here. But nevertheless, thoughts of work are beginning to enter your mind. You remember that you have a busy day ahead. Upon your desk are various blueprints, all of which need your attention. Right before you thumb to a new page, you hear a loud but friendly voice.
Looking up, you realize your boss is walking into your office. His hand is outstretched and handing you a piece of paper.
“I’ve got a new assignment for you and your colleagues.” He says. “Here are the bullet points for what we are trying to do…”
- Write the history of humanity
- Explain what it means to be human
- Show ex-terrestrials what life is like here on earth
“Oh, and by the way, we need you to express all of this on a 12 inch wide record. This is what we want it to look like…”
“But listen,” you say, “I’m already busy. I’m trying to predict the temperature of the shuttle when it hits terminal velocity after —
“Calm down, calm down,” your boss says, “we know you’re busy. I just wanted to tell you that this is what we are going to place on your Voyager. They’ve already made the record. You’ll have time to work out your equations, but first, take some time to look through these images. This is what NASA has deemed important enough to send out into space. Oh, and thanks for helping us get these images out there! We couldn’t have done it without you!”
That would be an awesome experience, would it not?
This is what happened at NASA leading up to the launch of Voyager 1 & 2 in 1977. At the end of this prelude, you will see a small collection (8 out of 115) of the images put together by Carl Sagan and a team of helpers¹… all of these images were selected and encoded onto the record prior to the launch. Each image represents an attempt at capturing the diversity and richness of our experience.
Of course, how could we ever compress life into 115 images? Or better yet, how could we ever compress life into a book like the one you are reading now? The answer is that we cannot. The exercise and the attempt at doing so, however, is something that reminds us of what is most important. There is value in considering the grand scheme of things. This life is mysterious and vibrant with color. We are unique and perhaps the only instance of intelligent life (or at least, that we know of). Within that fact lies something much greater. We are in and of the universe, and since we are composed of the same substance, you and I, here and now, are nothing less than the universe conversing with itself.
Despite the seemingly mundane experience, there is a certain type of enchantment associated with this life. My hope is that this book will inspire you. But perhaps more than that, my hope is that the readers do not forget we share this planet with others. We are accompanied by members of our own species, and to them we hold a responsibility, but we are also accompanied by other species. Members of our own species exist in poverty, and members of other species are being removed from existence entirely. Our oceans are suffering, our atmosphere depleting and our land is being scarred. All of this is the direct result of our hands. In the writing of this book, I have come to see that we are in this together. There is no other way.