At first glance, at first sight, even at a detailed first look, it doesn’t look like much. A black canvas of white, orange, and red dots and wispy smudges, some circular, some saucer-shaped, some wormlike. It’s as if someone playfully and randomly scattered beads from a box, or splashed an easel of white, orange and red paint, into a dark void, and it was captured in a photo frame, a frozen moment in time. No, definitely not something that would knock your socks off, as Nasa has promised.
Then close your eyes, absorb the background and the build-up, let your imagination run, and look at it again. This is a slice of our world, our universe, our cosmos. This is the picture scientists, astronomers, cosmologists and space buffs have been waiting for — the deepest image of the universe ever captured.
This is about everything that we are, where we came from, and where we belong, a miniscule, infinitesimal part of a cosmic expanse so vast and so old that the only way to traverse it is through imagination via this photo.
The James Webb’s space telescope’s First Deep Field photo is the sharpest in-depth infrared view of the universe to date, a front-row seat to galactic evolution. And it isn’t even the full monty, the big kahuna: this is just SMACS 0723, a galaxy cluster some 4.6 billions light-years from Earth, which means we are seeing light from cosmic bodies that was emitted 4.6 billion years ago, not as it is today. Another ten billion light years deeper and further afield, which the Webb telescope is eventually expected to peer into, is where it all is said to have begun, the Big Bang.
Now home into one body you see in the SMACS 0723 galaxy cluster -- any of the orange-red-white saucer like nicks in the photo, It is an unknown galaxy, not unlike our Milky Way -- in which the Earth is but a Pale Blue Dot. The Milky Way itself is a medium-sized galaxy, with a mere 200 billion stars, of which our sun is a piddling dwarf. There are galaxies ten times larger than the Milky Way, each with upwards of a trillion stars.
The largest galaxy, called IC 1101, has over 100 trillion stars. And there are an estimated two trillion galaxies in the universe. Two trillion galaxies, each with billions, perhaps trillions of stars — and we are not even talking of planets, asteroids, comets, and other celestial flotsam and jetsam that is part of the galactic swirl. The numbers are so vast that it is almost statistically inconceivable that there isn’t life out there.
And yet, here we are, Planet Earth, all alone — for now. The Webb telescope has just begun peering into our past, a past so vast and distant in time and space that it leads to a beginning beyond which we know not what lies. What if ours is just one universe that is part of a multiverse that lies beyond time and space as we know it? What came before the Big Bang, or beyond the Rig Veda’s Hymn of Creation reflections on the paradox of the universe’s origin: “Then even non-existence was not there, nor existence... there was only darkness wrapped in darkness.”
It is all very humbling, or at least should be. But it is hubris, not humility, that humankind is steeped in. In 1990, as the Voyager 1 space probe departed the solar system, Nasa commanded it to turn its camera around and take one last photograph of Earth from a then record distance of about 6 billion kilometers, at the request of astronomer and author, the late Carl Sagan. Even at such a relatively close distance, our planet was a speck of dust in the vastness of just the Milky Way. Sagan called it a Pale Blue Dot, and in an eponymous 1994 book, he made the following observation, as he looked in from out there.
“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. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
“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.
“It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. 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.”
The writer is a senior journalist based in Washington
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