The facts seem so grim these days. They feel like storm clouds: all too real and poised to bring more lightning than much-needed rain.
A congressional committee is establishing the factual pattern surrounding the Jan. 6, 2021 coup attempt and the “big lie” that the presidential election was stolen. The death toll from endless mass shootings. Reports on hunger, war and threatened democracies.
Why shouldn’t we all be scared, frightened and exhausted?
But last week we were reminded of other types of facts that bring us awe and comfort and context – even joy. The kind of facts that make scientists burst into tears: facts—rendered through images—of the cosmos itself. Last week we saw the first images from a new space telescope.
These images and the facts they embody are also important; they are the antidote to the others.
Even a few minutes spent staring at the mountain range of gas and dust now dubbed the Cosmic Cliff, or the insanely bright heart of a distant galaxy lit by hot gases being engulfed by a black hole become is not trivial.
And the longer we search, the better things get.
The James Webb Space Telescope (ah, sad fact: it’s named after a homophobic former NASA administrator) gave us infrared views of ancient galaxies swirling like sea creatures around the vortex of a gravitational lens. It focused on a foreground galaxy so massive and perfectly placed in our line of sight that it distorted and magnified distant light. Look at this “deep field” and you can go back 13 billion years. It showed us a planetary nebula — centered around a pair of dying stars in the southern Ring Nebula — surrounded by billowing dust and gases in such jagged detail that its brown cloud looks almost like a wood grain.
It’s all wonders. And wonders, like democracy, like the climate, like our security, are in a pretty precarious place right now.
If we need political and social facts to underpin our approach to a better future – and we do – we also need the science to keep gifting us with facts that enable us to experience miracles. Without the miracle that comes from discovery, we become entangled in the very machinery that produces what plagues us. Wonder reminds us of our better selves and that we live near things that stay, like star clusters and a nebula. We belong to the infinite universe.
Astronomy, for the most part, asks little of us (though some indigenous communities fighting to keep sacred mountains free of observatories are bound to disagree). Yes, the latest space telescope cost $10 billion (less than an aircraft carrier). But when we spend some of our tax dollars to unlock mysteries and vistas, that cost also keeps us rooted in the amazement of the more-than-human. We learn for the sake of learning – which is indeed noble – and we gain more than knowledge published in professional journals.
facts establish. You can delve too. The Webb will delve deeper into the origins of the Big Bang than ever before. It will help us understand the placement and movements of galaxies so we can understand the evolution of the universe. If that’s too abstract, it also scans alien worlds for signs that the conditions for life as we know it exist elsewhere. It might even find this life. What more profound discovery could there be?
The amazement we feel as we gaze at these new images can be more than a moment of eye candy. It offers, if we allow it, the peace of cosmic things, a way to connect through beauty and understanding. As our eyes meet the universe we are lifted out of ourselves like a breath, and then as we breathe in again we can be renewed for what is next.
Christopher Cokinos is a poet and writer based in Salt Lake City. He is a regular contributor to Astronomy.com and is working on a book about the moon.
https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2022-07-17/james-webb-space-telescope-galaxies-nebulas-black-holes-nasa Op-Ed: The Webb telescope photos are an antidote to today’s grim world