Saturday, October 5, 2013

Remember, Remember, the Ninth of November...

We are exactly one month away from the Fifth of November... Guy Fawkes Night. Here in Springfield, the great capital city of Illinois, I have hosted a Guy Fawkes Night party every November. This year will be the 5th annual Springfield Guy Fawkes Night celebration. Given that it's the fifth time we've celebrated the fifth of November, I wanted to do something special. Also, Carl Sagan Day is that Saturday (November 9) following Guy Fawkes Night, and will mark exactly one year since the creation of the Carl Sagan Google Doodle Campaign. So I thought that maybe I'd combine the two thematically somehow and do something extra special.

But I ask, using my best Tertullian impersonation: "What has Sagan to do with Guy Fawkes?"

Guy Fawkes once said, "a desperate disease requires a dangerous remedy," a restatement of a quote by Hippocrates, also translated as "extreme remedies are very appropriate for extreme diseases" [X]. Reminds me of Sagan's famous and oft-quoted axiom: "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

I have neither intention nor desire to compare Fawkes to Sagan. Carl Sagan Day is a celebration of the life and contributions of a great man. Bonfire Night is celebrated by me mostly for the novelty and as an excuse to make caramel apples and set something on fire. I enjoy the history and the story of the Gunpowder Plot, and the discussions sparked by such events. I am fascinated by the influence of Fawkes - or, rather, by his nefarious reputation - on art and media over the centuries. I find the repolishing of Fawkes' image in our modern times via the film V for Vendetta to be both curious and thought-provoking. We really don't know much about the man, do we? Was he a villain, as Bonfire Night portrays him? Was he really so devious as to warrant resemblance to Milton's Satan? One group's terrorist is another group's freedom fighter. Certainly this raises a few questions about more recent events in our history.

The Gunpowder Plot - the assassination attempt against King James I of England and VI of Scotland (the same King James whose name is on the Authorised King James Version of the Bible) - was brought on by religious tension in England at the time. English Catholics struggled in a society dominated by the newly separate and increasingly Protestant Church of England. Henry's daughter, Elizabeth I, responded to the growing religious divide by introducing the Elizabethan Religious Settlement, which required anyone appointed to a public or church office to swear allegiance to the monarch as head of the Church and state. The penalties for refusal were severe; fines were imposed for recusancy, and repeat offenders risked imprisonment and execution [X]. I am reminded of Sagan's words as he reflected on the image of the Pale Blue Dot, such a small and seemingly insignificant granule floating in a sea of black, what Sagan lovingly referred to as "the only home we've ever known":

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

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it's different. Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. 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.

The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. 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 with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

- Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot

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