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A mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam

Only twice has planet Earth been photographed from the far reaches of our solar system, and only once from nearly outside of it altogether. In his book Pale Blue Dot, Carl Sagan, who would have turned 79 this month, had this to say about that time, when Voyager 1 turned around to take a picture of Earth in 1990 as a parting gift when the probe was speeding on its way toward becoming the first man-made object to leave the solar system:

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. ... 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. ... 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.

We all inhabit that lovely blue dot

The image above was shot on July 19 by NASA's Cassini spacecraft — which is orbiting Saturn — as the planet eclipsed the sun and allowed the Earth to be seen as a tiny point of light nearly 1 billion miles away. (The inset shows an enlarged Earth and moon.) Released last week, it is a mosaic of 141 images taken over four hours. Carolyn Porco, who heads Cassini's imaging team, calls it "The Day the Earth Smiled." Why? On the date the photo was taken, she had encouraged people from all over the world to look up and smile. This is what she said on her website — the Captain's Log — about the image.

Now, look one more time. There, below the main rings and to the right of the globe of Saturn, far in the distance and seemingly lost in the radiance of the scene, lies a small speck of blue light, floating in a sea of stars. That is our home, with every last one of us on it ... you, me, the folks down the block, even those on the opposite side of the Earth ... we all inhabit that lovely blue dot.

And more than this ... the image of that dot captures the very moment, frozen in time, when the inhabitants of our planet took a break from their normal activities to go outside and acknowledge our "coming of age" as planetary explorers and the audacious interplanetary salute between robot and maker that this image represents.

I hope long into the future, when people look again at this image, they will recall the moment when, as crazy as it might have seemed, they were there, they were aware, and they smiled.

It's the one word we all understand

A new study examined languages from around the world and discovered what could be a universal word: "Huh?" Researchers traveled to cities and remote villages on five continents and discovered variants of "huh," defined as "a simple syllable with a low-front central vowel, glottal onset consonant, if any, and questioning intonation," in the 10 languages they studied, including Dutch, Icelandic, Mandarin Chinese, the West African language Siwu and the Australian aboriginal language Murrinh-Patha. English wasn't studied.

While it may seem like a throwaway word, "Huh?" is the glue that holds a broken conversation together, the globe-trotting team reported in the journal PLOS ONE. When one person misses a bit of information and the line of communication breaks, there needs to be a quick and effective way to fix it to keep the chat going. Hence, "huh."

Every version of "Huh?" was clearly a word because it passed two key tests, the scientists said: Each "Huh?" had to be learned by speakers and follow the rules of its language. For example, English speakers ask questions with rising tones, so when they say "Huh?" their voices rise. Icelandic speakers' voices fall when they ask a question, and sure enough, the tone goes down as they ask, "Ha?" (To an English speaker, this tone would sound like a statement of fact. To which you might remark: "Huh.")

Amina Khan, Los Angeles Times

The accidental face of

Good Morning America managed to track down Adriana, the "face" of the's earliest (and most troubled) days. She is, understandably, less than pleased about all the late-night jokes, online hatred and general cyberbullying that she has been the target of since the website went live at the start of last month. Her basic message: It's not my fault! "I didn't design the website," she said. "I didn't make it fail, so I don't think they should have any reasons to hate me."

So how'd her face end up on the Obamacare homepage? That's where things get a little weird. I'll let ABC News explain:

The saga of the photo started innocuously enough. Seeking free family photographs, Adriana emailed a contact at the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the agency responsible for the Affordable Care Act's rollout, about having photos of her and her family taken in exchange for allowing the photos to be used to market the new health care law. She was never paid.

She learned over the summer that her photo would be on's main page, but she didn't realize it would become so closely associated with the problems of the glitchy website.

The good news for Adriana is that her photo was dropped from the website during its latest redesign — and, I suppose, she now has quite the story to tell when she breaks out her family portrait.

Josh Voorhees, Slate

Giving people a glimpse of what their pets see

Forget about a bird's-eye view. Nature's Recipe, a leader in pet foods, is introducing a digital campaign for a principal brand that promises to provide views from the dog's- and cat's-eye perspective (see the examples, right). The centerpiece of the campaign is a microsite, or special website,, where visitors can pore over virtual scrapbooks of photographs snapped by "collar cameras" provided by Nature's Recipe to cat and dog owners who are deemed influencers — that is, known to or followed by other pet owners.

Stuart Elliott, New York Times

Huh? 11/15/13 [Last modified: Friday, November 15, 2013 5:42pm]
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