By Guy Dauncey, August 2022
While we have been quietly growing our tomatoes, kayaking on the ocean, and working at our jobs, a team of the planet’s most brilliant people have been sending a telescope one and a half million kilometres into space.
They want to see more of the Universe, going further back in time. To do this, they designed the James Webb Space Telescope with eighteen hexagonal mirrors, each four feet wide and so utterly flat that if you stretched it across the Atlantic any ripple in its surface would be only an inch or two. Then they sent it beyond the moon, where the temperature is minus 250 Celsius, so that no heat could disturb its infra-red measurements. When they had unfolded its solar panels, via instructions from NASA on Earth, they pointed it into distant space. In July, they got their first results.
To describe the photo shown, NASA says that if you take a grain of sand and hold it at arm’s length, that’s how small an area of the Universe it covers. For a closer look, see www.tinyurl.com/SpaceWonder. The photo shows a host of galaxies, each of which might contain up to a trillion stars, each of which might have a solar system containing planets. There’s one tiny red dot that NASA scientists say is from a star 13.1 billion light years away, which means we are seeing it as it was 700 million years after the Universe began.
What has this to do with us, in our everyday lives? It stretches our minds; it blows the lichen and moss off our imaginations. Everything we are has its origins in this history, all that time ago. If life has developed elsewhere in the Universe, which is a trillion percent likely, it will share the same origins. There are no ‘aliens’ out there: only relatives, in one cosmic family.
Our minds themselves are the product of 13.8 billion years of cosmic evolution; they are the Universe learning to think about itself. As mine searches for understanding, it thinks that since we have consciousness, this must be an inherent property of the Universe, which probably permeates all reality. Most people accept that cats, dogs, and other animals are conscious. But what about ants? Trees? Fungi? Is it perhaps logical to think that all existence must possess some form of consciousness? Where else did ours come from, if not from our cosmic story? This would mean that our cosmic relatives are conscious too.
Some of those relatives might have learnt how to make space telescopes ten million years ago. They might be observing us, as we step out from our clan-based identities to realize that we are one human family. They may be groaning, as they watch us make the same mistakes their ancestors made ten million years before. Destroying the forests, overharvesting the fish, polluting the atmosphere. It is not long since our ancestors used to burn women alive, for fear that they were witches. They used to kill Blacks, Jews, and Indigenous people, to boost their self-importance and enforce their right to dominate. They used to assume that winning was more important than wisdom.
Some people say that when they realize the vastness of the Universe they feel utterly insignificant, that everything we do is meaningless. When I consider the journey of cosmic evolution, and everything the Universe has created, I am filled with gratitude. We are on a grand journey so amazing that each of us has 37 trillion cells in our body, all of which are cooperating and self-organizing to keep us healthy and enable us to share these thoughts. Along the way we make mistakes. We do cruel and stupid things. But in the big picture, the one the telescope reveals, we are learning, muddling our way towards wisdom.
First published in TAKE 5 Magazine, July 2022