The James Webb Space Telescope

Two facts about our modern world: one, human-created technology reveals to us a universe that is beyond human imagining and comprehension; two, nearly all of us are either totally unaware of what we as a collective are discovering or, even if we catch fleeting glimpses of what is being discovered, we are so blasé about it that it does not move most of us.

That attitude of being uninterested in the modern marvels is understandable because we really don’t have the time. We have stuff to get done. However, though getting mundane things done matters, it is also important to take a bit of time to pause and wonder at the the vision of the universe that lies beyond, and which technologies like the James Webb Space Telescope enable us to see. What are we capable of seeing today has not been seen by anyone ever. Of the countless trillions of living things that have ever lived on earth, we — the present around 8 billion humans — are the only ones who have that opportunity.

What I find so interesting about the JWST is that it enables us to see far back in time — to less than 200 million years after the beginning of this universe around 13.8 billion years ago. That’s much nearer to the Big Bang than the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) could see — around 500 million years after the Big Bang.

The JSWT sees the universe as it was around 13.6 billion years ago. At that time, the solar system (around 4.5 billion years old) did not exist. The Milky Way was just beginning to form. That blows my mind.

Here’s one of the first images from the JWST. It took half a day to capture this deep-field image. The image below is enhanced (you could say it was “photoshopped”). For the details, see this piece at Big Think.

NASA has the most comprehensive page on the JWST. Do check it out, particularly the associated blog. Now, back to my thoughts on the matter.

I had the luxury of having the time to follow JSWT’s journey to its parking orbit at L2, and the subsequent deployment. I spent dozens of hours reading about and watching videos on the internet. (Like this full documentary video from Nova.) I was fascinated by the science, engineering and technology. I could have got a lot of work done but I am not that committed to getting work done. The world fascinates me.

Aside from the fascination of the tech world, the more fascinating bit is that we human beings are even capable of such feats. Remember that we are evolved apes, cousins to the other Great Apes — the chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas. Our lineage diverged from theirs not long ago: around 11 million years in the case of gorillas, and around 5 million years for the chimps.

Those dates are estimates that are subject to revision but for our purposes, the fact is that our common ancestors lived quite recently relative to astronomical timescales. The JWST allows us to see what the universe looked like 13.6 billion (13.8 minus 200 million) years ago. Compared to 13.6 billion, even 20 million is a rounding error. Recently evolved apes building space telescopes!

Our common ancestors too looked up at the skies and had no idea of what they were witness to. We do have the capacity to look up and wonder. Why don’t we do it more often?

Now we have instruments that help us see what people living in the recent past could not have imagined. It’s only about 100 years ago (1920) that astronomers figured out that the solar system is part of a galaxy they named the Milky Way. That’s when they realized that there are other “island universes” beyond the one find ourselves in. Perhaps Carl Sagan should have said that there are billions and billions of galaxies out there. Too bad he did not.

And now we know so much. The more we know, the more we realize how little we know. The more we see, we realize how much more there’s to see.

Alright, time to end this bit. I leave you with a song that has been a favorite for many decades. The line that moves me says, “Our time is just a point along a line that runs forever with no end.” Here’s Al Stewart’s “Lord Grenville.”

Go and tell Lord Grenville that the tide is on the turn
It’s time to haul the anchor up and leave the land astern
We’ll be gone before the dawn returns
Like voices on the wind

Go and fetch the captain’s log and tear the pages out
We’re on our way to nowhere now, can’t bring the helm about
None of us are left in any doubt
We won’t be back again

Send a message to the fleet, they’ll search for us in vain
We won’t be there among the reaches of the Spanish Main
Tell the ones we left home not to wait

We won’t be back again
(Won’t be back again…)

Our time is just a point along a line
That runs forever with no end

I never thought that we would come to find
Ourselves upon these rocks again
Oh no…

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.

Author: Atanu Dey


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