Waving at Saturn: The Copernican Prespective

Written by Frank White.


Something profound happened recently: the Cassini spacecraft took a photograph of the Earth from a point in space not far from Saturn. This recalled an earlier photo memorialized by Carl Sagan when he talked about Earth as a “pale blue dot.”

 This view sent to us by Cassini comes very close to what I have called in the past “the Copernican Perspective.” If the Overview Effect is an experience of the Earth as a whole system, the Copernican Perspective is the realization of the Earth as part of yet another system, the solar system. It is also a recognition that Copernicus was right, in that the sun, not the Earth, is the center of that system.

 When I was writing about this phenomenon some 35 years ago, I imagined a photo of the solar system taken from outside of it. While composites of such pictures have indeed been constructed, I don’t believe that the definitive photograph has yet been created. However, this Cassini picture is certainly moving in that direction.

 Like the Overview Effect, the Copernican Perspective is a shift in our identity, in our “centeredness.” It causes us to ask what is central to our worldview, and what is peripheral?

  In 1987, I wrote in The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution:

"The Overview Effect is the essential insight needed to create a planetary       civilization. The Copernican Perspective is the essential insight needed to create a solar civilization."  (p. 65)

 A civilization is built on a center, an identity, and a worldview. The Romans said that “all roads lead to Rome” because the city was the center of that civilization, key to its identity and defined its worldview.

 Human beings have long known, intellectually, that the Earth is not the center of the universe or even of the solar system. Now, as more and more humans go into orbit and to the moon, we are coming to know that this is the case experientially.

 Seeing the Earth from near-space (orbit and the moon) is triggering the motivation to begin building a planetary civilization. As we begin to view the planet from a greater distance (Mars and Saturn, for example), we will begin to feel the tug to begin building a planetary civilization.

 Evidence of the impetus for this second wave of civilization-building is found in the response of 100,000 people to Mars One’s offer to send them to Mars on a one-way trip to begin a human settlement there.

 It is truly remarkable that, as in the days when people began moving West in wagon trains, by horseback, and even on foot, individuals are willing to give up everything (possibly including their own lives) to be pioneers in spreading the species to other planets.

 Those who actually follow through on Mars One’s plan will have the Copernican Perspective as a daily experience. Earth is very small from Saturn, but it is also pretty small when seen from Mars. Many may call them Martians. I will go along with that, but I will also call them “Copernicans.”