Our views of deep space, such as the new photos from the James Webb Space Telescope, can serve as the basis for a profoundly moral vision.
I keep telling myself I’m going to buy a telescope one day.
Problem is, I’m not in a promising situation for amateur astronomy. I live in a light-shrouded city, with a young son who falls asleep early. And high-quality telescopes are expensive.
Still, one day—when my son is older and can stay up later, when it’s easier to travel to places with dark and quiet skies—I’d like to try it. I want to see the planets, the Milky Way, Andromeda, and other astronomical sights for myself. It may be impractical romanticism, but there’s something special about peering into the universe with your own eyes.
In the meantime, we have the world’s most advanced scientific agencies to give us glimpses of awe and wonder that unaided human eyes could never perceive. Case in point: The James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s next-generation observatory, has released its first batch of images.
And they’re spectacular.
A deeper vision
JWST specializes in infrared rather than visible light. There’s a reason for that. Because of the expansion of the universe, light waves are stretched into longer, redder wavelengths across billions of years of travel. That means the very oldest light has redshifted into the infrared. The Hubble Telescope can’t see in these wavelengths, so it can’t see the earliest eras of the universe, and Earth’s atmosphere absorbs infrared, so ground-based telescopes can’t see them at all.
JWST doesn’t have this problem. It can see objects as ancient as 180 million years after the Big Bang. That’s further back than the oldest galaxies, as far back as some of the first stars. It can spot objects a hundred times fainter than the Hubble Space Telescope can detect.
With infrared sight, it can see through dust clouds which blot out other observatories, giving us a closer look at the fiery birth of stars. With its ultra-sharp vision, it can glimpse the atmosphere of a planet beyond our solar system, spotting the spectral signature of water.
The most stunning image might be Webb’s First Deep Field. In a piece of sky the apparent size of a sand grain held at arm’s length, there are thousands of galaxies—island universes scattered across the void like sandshells on a beach, some dating back to when the universe was a mere billion years old. The Hubble took weeks of patient observation to assemble a picture like this. The JWST needed just 12 hours.
Thanks to the scientists and engineers who built this telescope, we have a deeper vision than ever before. What does it show us about ourselves?
We’re insignificant—thank goodness
Some philosophers would argue that science is one thing and morality another, and the gap between them can’t be bridged. They’d insist that no observation of the universe, however precise, can tell us anything about how we should treat each other.
I disagree. A true understanding of our place in the universe doesn’t just confer scientific insight. It’s the basis for a profound moral vision.
Look again at those pictures. Imagine the billions of galaxies, the billions upon billions of stars spinning in their orbits through space. Imagine the countless trillions of extrasolar planets with their own seas, their own storms, revolving majestically without a care for humanity. Imagine the titanic deaths of suns, the collisions of galaxies. Next to events like these, our petty squabbles are insignificant.
All the things that divide us—hate and prejudice, dueling nationalisms and contending religions, the greed of conquerors and the power-lust of tyrants—are a narcissism of small differences. Our rivalries, our animosities, the fume and turmoil of our sprawling civilization all dwindle in the light of ancient suns. They shrink until they’re so tiny that we can’t see them at all.
The differences between one human being and another aren’t gaps of cosmic significance, but accidents on an unimaginably tiny scale. On the scale of the universe, we’re like microbes inhabiting a droplet on a slide. Think of how absurd we’d find it if two races of bacteria went to war over who would dominate their drop of pond water—and if the victors hailed themselves as mighty, conquering warriors!
Carl Sagan made this sentiment immortal when he mused on Earth as a pale blue dot:
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.
The Earth and all its cargo is a precious atom of life drifting in an infinite ocean of space and time. For me, the seed of that realization was planted the first time I saw the night sky—and the first time I understood that each of those tiny twinkles was a sun like our own. But it was clarified and deepened by deep-space portraits like the Hubble Deep Field, and now the JWST’s even sharper images. Each one shows us, with breathtaking clarity, how small our place is in the grand scheme of things.
For a humanist, this knowledge is a healthy tonic. It dispels the arrogant belief that we’re the most special and important beings ever to exist. It shatters the conceit that we inhabit a universe made just for us, that it was created when we were created and it will die when we die. It puts our great deeds, our achievements and our sins, into their true context.
It banishes the illusion that the supreme goal of life should be riches, power or fame. People chase these things because they want to be noticed, because they want to be loved (or feared), but ultimately, because they want to be remembered. However, we’ll never be big enough for the universe to take notice or to remember. That’s a wonderfully freeing realization. In the grand scheme of things, obscurity is inevitable, so we can discard those foolish mirages and concentrate on what really matters.
The cosmic vision reminds us of how small and fragile we are. From above, the Earth is a blue oasis in an endless desert, the atmosphere that sustains us no thicker than a skin of paint. In the emptiness, we have nowhere to go but here, no one to protect us but each other. Astronauts have spoken of this epiphany, of how seeing the world this way kindles an overwhelming desire to protect it:
…as I looked down at the Earth—this stunning, fragile oasis, this island that has been given to us, and that has protected all life from the harshness of space—a sadness came over me, and I was hit in the gut with an undeniable, sobering contradiction.
In spite of the overwhelming beauty of this scene, serious inequity exists on the apparent paradise we have been given. I couldn’t help thinking of the nearly one billion people who don’t have clean water to drink, the countless number who go to bed hungry every night, the social injustice, conflicts, and poverty that remain pervasive across the planet.
Seeing Earth from this vantage point gave me a unique perspective—something I’ve come to call the orbital perspective. Part of this is the realisation that we are all travelling together on the planet and that if we all looked at the world from that perspective we would see that nothing is impossible.NASA astronaut Ron Garan, quoted in: “Seeing Earth From Space Changes Astronauts’ Minds Forever. Here’s Why.” Julia Calderone, Business Insider, July 2019.
Lastly, the cosmic vision bestows a proper sense of humility. Just as Roman generals had servants to whisper in their ears, “Remember you are mortal!” to keep them from getting swollen with hubris—in the same way, we should contemplate the infinite more often. We should bear it like a pendant, to remind us whenever we get too full of ourselves.
Perhaps we should frame these pictures and display them in the offices of world leaders. Let them hang before the eyes of every would-be conqueror and tyrant, every robber baron and arrogant plutocrat, to torment them with their ultimate insignificance. Let them gnash their teeth in the knowledge that all their bloody glory and embezzled treasures are as dust. (Will it work? Maybe not, but I can dream, can’t I?)
A god’s eye
Although the cosmic vision gives us a much-needed dose of humility, it’s not a reason to abase ourselves. It’s true that our dreams of fame and glory are as nothing before the universe. However, there’s another path to greatness that’s open to us.
On the absolute scale, we’re less than microscopic. We’re little more than a few atoms clinging together, huddled on a dust speck whirling around an obscure yellow star on the fringes of an unexceptional galaxy in a vast and ancient universe.
But for the same reason, this makes it all the more significant that we can comprehend the whole, with our minds and the work of our hands. Telescopes like the JWST are like a lighthouse shining in the dark, gazing across the light-years, revealing our place in the universe.
Humanity has been questing for millennia to see further, to peer more deeply into the strange universe around us. From ancient cultures that charted the stars with naked eyes, to Galileo’s telescope which gave him the first glimpse of Jupiter’s moons and Saturn’s “ears,” to bigger and more capable ground-based observatories, to space telescopes like the Hubble and the JWST, each step upward is like the drawing back of a curtain, revealing more and more to us.
In the myths, the gods stood in their high places and gazed out across the universe with all-seeing vision. That power was supposed to be a divine prerogative, but now we’ve claimed it for ourselves.
We built a god’s eye, out of gold and beryllium and silicon-doped aluminized polyimide. We mounted it on a citadel loftier than Mount Olympus or Asgard: the L2 point, in deep space a million miles from Earth. We can laugh those tales of tribal war deities to scorn: they could only see the fall of a sparrow, whereas we’ve built an eye that can spot a lonely photon arriving from intergalactic space. Is this not glory that surpasses anything the ancient myth-makers ever dreamed of?
The cosmic vision is humility and greatness combined in one. It shows us how ultimately insignificant we are, but by our mere ability to comprehend the whole of space and time, it elevates us. We’re not lost or bewildered amid this chaos. We know where and when we belong, where we came from and why we exist. What other collection of atoms can say the same?