The world of science news, commentary, and blogging has recently been quite interested in a photo released by NASA and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), showing the Earth as seen from the Cassini probe, which is currently orbiting the gas giant planet Saturn.
At first glance, the picture strikes me as a scene out of the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. The gas giant looms in the foreground, lit from behind, from our perspective, by the light of the Sun, which it is blocking out. In fact, blocking out the Sun is a crucial element of this image. Removing the Sun’s overwhelming glare allows us to see, in the far distance, a tiny sparkle – the planet Earth, 898 million miles away. This image, taken on July 19th, is in fact only the third picture ever taken of the planet Earth from the outer solar system.
It’s not inappropriate that I’m reminded of a movie known for its striking visual artistry (whatever else you may think about it). In their description of the image, the NASA/JPL team notes that the image of the Earth is only one small part of a larger mosaic of images which, when combined together, will show the entire span of Saturn’s rings. Of the images, JPL’s release notes, “some were taken for scientific purposes and some to produce a natural color mosaic.”
In other words, some parts of the image aren’t for science, they are for show – for art. Science is, in a sense, akin to art, in that the best of science is a pursuit of beauty, often of an intellectual sort, but often even of the visual kind as well, as seen in this new image from Cassini. The pursuit of truth and beauty is one of those leisured things that is good for its own sake.
Back in 1990, the probe Voyager 1 took the first image of Earth from deep space, from a distance of 3.7 billion miles – still the record distance for a photo of the Earth. In the image, the Earth is seen as a tiny blue speck in the vast blackness of space.
This “Pale Blue Dot” image has become something of a sacramental amongst scientific skeptics. Carl Sagan immortalized it in a book of the same title, writing:
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
Sagan’s reaction is typical of those who find in science a process of dethronement and disenchantment of previous “naïve superstitions.” But of course the older Christian and even the ancient pagan conceptions of the cosmos weren’t quite that simple. While man’s unique calling was of course central to the Christian vision, his physical location on Earth was never accorded so much significance, being thought of as, at best, a middling place between Heaven and Hell.
Yet despite the sense that our place was fallen and incomplete, there has also been in Christian thought and sentiment a sense that our station in the universe was a place of some beauty, a reflection of the glory and providence of God.
As Sagan perceived, modern scientific knowledge of the cosmos reinforces the sense that the Earth is a rare jewel. Whether this jewel is a fluke, a random chance, or a providentially provided home, however, is not something that can be decided simply by viewing a photograph. Like all art, it may expand the experiences from which we draw, but we also bring to it many philosophical presuppositions.
Thus I think that it is chiefly as art that we must consider the true importance of such scientific images: as God’s art, Who made the solar system, and as man’s art who made the devices that can explore space and return these images to Earth.
These pictures are delightful, in the more philosophical meaning of the term: they cause us to rejoice at what is. Although he interprets them in the dim and shadowy light of his bleak philosophy, the skeptic is nevertheless moved by these scientific images because they do truly contain beauty.
Thus, despite their common misuse, the Christian should not be too quick to dismiss these pictures. They may well be used in facile attempts to undermine the Christian view of the world; but our response should not therefore be to reject them entirely, any more than Christian artists reject art because it, too, is often put to perverse uses.
Instead, our challenge is first to learn how to intellectually counter the skeptics’ arguments by pointing out the flaws in their reasoning. More importantly, however, and perhaps the more difficult task – considering the ample rhetorical skill of the skeptical popularizers – we must learn how to teach the world to look at these images not with the eyes of despair, but with the eyes of faith.
Because the eyes of faith see something that is truly there – and not to be missed when science masquerades as philosophy.