An Early Draft of Carl Sagan's Famous 'Pale Blue Dot' Quote

A peek into the evolution of a beloved passage.
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NASA/Rebecca J. Rosen

There is something about Carl Sagan's famous "Pale Blue Dot" passage that is, to me at least, perfect. 

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 thereon the mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

Each word, each category, the overall rhythm—all of it is just right. I've read that passage (or listened to Sagan read it) countless times; it's hard to imagine it any other way. 

Which is why I was so intrigued to come across an earlier draft of the passage among the recently digitized items in the Library of Congress's new Carl Sagan archive. The draft bears the date February 20, 1993. The first edition of the book would be published a bit less than two years later, in November of 1994. 

You can see in red where Sagan has added in, "every 'superstar', every 'supreme leader'," an alliterative touch that would survive to the final draft, many, many revisions later. (The Library holds 20 drafts of the full book, of which this is the second.) But the superstar/supreme leader line is only the most visible of the edits we can ascertain from this passage. Take a listen to the final version:

Here, I've marked up every line that's changed:

The rhythm has improved, helped along by added repetition of "every"; aliens have been excised (too distracting, perhaps?); acts of heroism and betrayal have become heroes and cowards, fitting in more neatly with the rest of the passage. Overall, the effect of the edits is a better flow, which, at least in Sagan's sonorous voice, is what gives the section its punch. Or perhaps I'm just more familiar with it, and that's why it sings to me.

Interestingly, the one substantively significant change between the 1993 draft and Sagan's recording is one that proves enigmatic upon further digging. Are we a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam? Or, are we the mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam? The draft says "a," but the voice says "the." It seems that Sagan's verdict, in the end, was for "the." A definite article! We are not just any mote of dust but the mote of dust.

But one detail adds a bit of ambiguity: The book agrees with the draft, not the recording, plainly calling Earth a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

So, in a way, Sagan has left us with the answer that we are both. We are just a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. But at the same time, "for us it's different," Sagan says. For us, we're the mote of dust: That's here. That's home. That's us.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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