The Same Stuff

Yesterday NASA revealed the first batch of images from the James Webb Space Telescope. It was a much anticipated, heavily marketed, and precisely choreographed event concluding three decades of painstaking and elaborate effort and the expenditure of $10 billion of public funds.

Or perhaps beginning is the better word. For the Webb Space Telescope has roughly 20 years of exploration and science still before it, barring any more, and larger, pieces of random space rock striking and disrupting the telescope’s delicate and finally calibrated gold-plated mirrors. Many more dazzling images and disruptive scientific discoveries are sure to come.

For astronomers, astrophysicists, and astrobiologists, the images were at once deeply satisfying and also provocative. Those among us with less or no scientific training and background could only begin to imagine what they were thinking and seeing as these views into deep space and time came up on the screen. So many confirmations, surprises, revelations, and new questions. I found myself regretting my lack of relevant scientific depth and training.

But even the scientists — or at least some of them — had to resort to everyday language and feelings to express their reactions. Referring to Webb’s images of the Southern Ring Nebula — a ghostly, haloed shell of cosmic dust and light radiating from a dying star — Bruce Balick, emeritus professor of astronomy at the University of Washington, summed up his reactions by deploying a bit of distinctly non-technical British slang: “I’m gobsmacked,” he said.

And “gobsmacked” is exactly what many of us non-scientists felt in seeing these arresting and strangely beautiful images, a potent combination of surprise, awe, wonder, astonishment, and rich aesthetic excitement and pleasure. It’s akin to what 17th and 18th-century British writers and philosophers intended when they coined the term “the sublime,” a notion that attempted to gather into one word and idea the sensations and thoughts and feelings we have when we encounter something vast, powerful, uncommon, and beautiful. Edmund Burke felt that the sublime also had to include the sensation of fear, or at least profound unease, in the face of things so grand and uncommon. I confess to my own sense of unease as I pondered the implications of Webb’s beautiful pictures.

But the unease is mixed with the recognition of something deeply familiar. Carl Sagan’s celebrated words from 1980 — “The cosmos is within us. We are made of star stuff. We are a way for the universe to know itself.” — were much in the news as Webb’s coming out approached, and they were in the room yesterday morning as the first images were revealed. Amber Straughan, the deputy project director for Webb, paraphrased Sagan in her own remarks. Pointing to the dusty walls of the Carina Nebula, she urged her audience to understand that “We humans really are connected to the universe. We’re made out of the same stuff in this landscape.”

It’s hard not to sense a note of public apology in that remark, anticipating any lingering or future public skepticism as to why so much time and money were spent on making a half-dozen photographs. But Straughan’s words, and Sagan’s too, do in fact helps us absorb the meaning of the project. To contemplate Webb’s deep look into space is to consider the wonder of the evolution of things — from the first primitive forms of matter to complex and vast reaches of space and stars and planets, from early forms of life to the complex and sometimes strange animals that now look back on the history of the things from which they came. This entwinement and reversibility, this fantastically long and intricate history of cosmic kinship, is what Webb speaks to us about.

And of course the prospect — no, now the virtual certainty — that something is looking back at us, or will do in the long reaches of time to come. The deep field image that was the first to be shared publicly displays hundreds of galaxies in complex arrangements of space and time. Billions of stars and exoplanets in just a small fraction of the now much larger visible universe that Webb has unveiled. The same evolutionary process that led to Webb’s startling achievements is at work elsewhere, or everywhere, across this unfathomably large reach of space and objects and time. The same stuff, our stuff, out there.

References

Dennis Overbye, Kenneth Change, Joshua Sokol, “Webb Telescope Reveals a New Vision of an Ancient Universe,” The New York Times, Wednesday, July 12, 2022

Carl Sagan, Cosmos — A Personal Voyage, PBS, September 1, 1980

Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, London, 1757

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Visible and the Invisible (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1968)

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Bro Adams

Bro Adams

William Adams lives and writes in Portland, Maine, and Puyloubier, France. He served in the Obama administration as Chair of NEH from 2014 to 2017.