Commentary

Time For A Little Perspective

It’s been another hard week -- awful, depending on who you are and how your heart works. My social media is full of shootings. Trials. Viciousness. Anger. The lesser angels of our nature set free to wreak havoc in the global town square, as they have been now for years.

Sometimes they seem to be winning.

These stories dominate the news feed, invoking both righteousness and urgency. And that is fair. We need urgent action on gun control. We need, urgently, to protect victims of domestic abuse.

But these are not the only stories. They are one small facet of the great unfolding story that is the story of humanity, of all of us, we imperfect meat sacks stumbling through life. There is more.

There is, for example, this story: 32 years ago, a telescope was launched into space with the goal of exploring the universe in visible, ultraviolet and infrared wavelengths. It was called Hubble.

Every ambitious project has its detractors, and this one was no different. Even people who liked the telescope were dismissive of what it would be able to find. NASA recalls that “John Bahcall, one of the world’s top astrophysicists and a Hubble advocate… [argued] that Hubble wouldn’t reveal any galaxies not already visible from ground-based methods.”

That sounded like a challenge to Robert Williams from the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), who had access to some of Hubble’s discretionary time. In 1995, Williams decided to use that time to point Hubble at the darkest patch of sky he possibly could, an area where we were sure there was simply… nothing.

What emerged profoundly changed our understanding of the universe. The Hubble Deep Field image contained almost 3,000 galaxies. It was an absolutely shocking and unexpected outcome -- and there was no way we were going to stop there. The Hubble Ultra Deep Field, taken almost 10 years later, showed 10,000 previously unknown galaxies.

There was no way we were going to stop there. There was no way we ever intended to stop there.

Before Hubble had even left the ground, STScI Director Riccardo Giacconi had already lain down the challenge: “What next?

Before the first Deep Field image had even been exposed, ideas for Hubble’s successor were being floated.

And just as the Ultra Deep Field image was being captured, construction began on the James Webb Space Telescope.

The James Webb Space Telescope took 26 YEARS and $10 BILLION to build. When it launched, it had THREE HUNDRED AND FORTY-FOUR single points of failure: bolts, pins, latches that had to work perfectly or the entire mission would be a write-off.

When it was released from the rocket that brought it to space, it was traveling at 25,000 miles per hour. It took 30 days to reach its final destination, more than 900,000 miles (almost 1.5 million kms) from earth.

While traveling at that incomprehensible speed, it went through 23 different stages to unfold into its final configuration -- the world's most complicated Ikea assembly, with no one around to help if things went wrong.

(Unbelievably, during this journey, an amateur astronomer caught Webb on video. At the time, Webb was traveling at 3,600 mph and was 160,000 miles away from earth.

It will take photos of light that is 13.5 BILLION YEARS OLD. That is, it will take photos of the beginning of the universe: 50-250 million years after the Big Bang.

On Jan. 25, JWST entered into orbit at its destination, Lagrange point 2.

In February, we got to see an image showing 18 “different” stars -- what things looked like before JWST had properly calibrated its mirrors.

On March 11, we saw the first aligned image. Everything works.

And in less than six weeks’ time, on July 12, , we’ll get to see the first full-color images taken from the James Webb Space Telescope.

Consider for a moment the audacity of this mission. Consider the courage. Imagine how you'd be biting your nails and chewing the insides of your cheeks as your decades of work comes together with that of thousands of other people, with so many things having to go just right...

When the day-to-day is so full of sound and fury, I come back to JWST. I come back to the people who poured their heart into a project they wouldn’t be alive to see. Who bet their careers on a telescope that -- had even the tiniest thing gone wrong -- could easily have been the world’s most expensive space sculpture. Who invested time and money and resources to allow us to lift our gazes higher and see further than ever before.

I come back to the nearly incomprehensible scale of the cosmos and our utter, astonishing insignificance within it.

We are all just imperfect meat sacks stumbling through life, ants on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. It does me good to remember that, every now and then. I hope it does you good as well.

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