Overview:

When the James Webb Telescope's first photos are released on July 12, our latest glimpse into the ancient cosmos will join a rich history of questions about the stars that connects humanity across the centuries and millennia.

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It was an atypically dry English spring when a man in Bath scanned the skies with a 7-inch reflecting telescope he’d designed and built by hand, through painstaking refinements to Isaac Newton’s principles of optics. William Herschel was studying stellar parallax, the phenomenon that makes a nearby star look like it has moved in relation to distant stars, when really it’s the Earth that’s changed position. The year was 1781, and we already understood that there were layers of deep-space wonders in our cosmic neighborhood.

But on March 13, Herschel was distracted by an unusual object, a disc he at first took for a comet, then possibly a star. Georgium Sidus, he called it. “George’s Star,” after the king. But months of follow-up observations confirmed that it was neither comet nor star. It orbited the Sun, just like the Earth. In time, the planet was called Uranus, and Herschel became the King’s Astronomer, with pension and knighthood.

If you read about the discovery of Uranus, you’ll probably see March 13, 1781 listed as the date when the planet was identified. That does a deep disservice to the long, twisty road of scientific progress. Herschel first noticed something unusual that night, but it would take much more effort to sift through the possibilities, gather sufficient data to exclude alternatives, and come to his transformative conclusion.

Some 240 years later, advances in astronomy and cosmology still come to us as monumental dates that can gloss over huge backdrops of painstaking, long-term work. On July 12, 2022, NASA will release the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope’s mission to collect light from some of the oldest galaxies in our cosmos and grow our knowledge of deep-space exoplanets. But the work that made this mission possible extends far back into our history. For all our missteps as a species, we have always been looking up, and wondering.

This latest leap into deep-space exploration isn’t just about what lies beyond. It’s also about what connects humanity across millennia of recorded time.

Constellations of Paleolithic wonder

Some 38,000 years ago, our ancestors looked up and saw stars in various positions. Because they had different relationships to their environment than we do to ours, they saw different significance in the groupings. Animal forms, by and large, shaped their constellations, which they started incorporating into their artwork (statues, paintings, stone craft) across tens of thousands of years and different locations. Our Paleolithic forebears marked solstices and equinoxes, recognized and used the North Star for orientation, built sites around astral know-how, and had calendars that indicated significant events like comet-fall.

The beliefs they attached to the cosmos are difficult to ascertain from what little remains of their cultures, but early and modern humans share enough basic biology to offer some continuities in thought. The Psalmist of the Hebrew and Christian Bibles is sometimes considered an early astronomer, because whoever wrote Psalm 8 (over the many centuries in which Psalms was constructed) also looked up with great curiosity, wondering how humanity related to the cosmic spectacle.

In the Christian Bible (KJV): “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?” In the Hebrew Writings (JPS, 1985): “When I behold Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and stars that You set in place, what is man that You have been mindful of him, mortal man that You have taken note of him?”

Astronomy in the Greco-Roman world drew on geometry and other maths, less interested in spiritual dimensions and more on ascertaining the order and movements of the skies. This atheistic rigor was even teased by writers of the period, such as Lucian of Samosata, who wrote some of the earliest science-fantasies, and in Icaromenippus mocked astronomers for their overconfidence and secularism, while imagining whole realms of god-alien sport and warfare in outer space.

But of no laughing matter was the Roman, then Christian bans on astrology, which everyday people enjoyed because they believed the stars to have a direct impact on human lives. For all that astrology lacks scientific rigor, its reliance on stargazing helped to refine the practice. In this way, its popularity benefited astronomy, too.

The belief that stars informed human destiny shaped mainstream views of the cosmos well into the Renaissance and early Enlightenment. In Leonardo da Vinci’s time, there was a strong conviction that the Christian god had built the world with synchronicity: man’s body a microcosmic version of nature’s macrocosm, and all the processes that one could find in man, also evident in the world at large. Contemporaneous physician Paracelsus took this to mean that man had “inner stars”, affected as much by the passage of a divine will through the “outer stars” to reach the Earth, as through the Christian god’s direct impact on individual humans.

The turn to a grander cosmos

In the late 18th century, the Biblical Psalmist’s awe returned through German and English Romanticism. This aesthetic movement focused on heightened psychological responses to an intense focus on the natural world. “World-grief” and “the Sublime” were two concepts that dug deep into the juxtaposed smallness of human beings and the immensity of the world around them. The endlessness of the outer cosmos became a significant preoccupation, and questions of its age and connection to the state of nature on Earth surged in surrounding literature.

Around the same time, Erasmus Darwin (Charles’s grandfather) wrote a famously unsettling poem on the nature of the cosmos, which to many Christians was a realm that represented their god’s infinite power and reach. In The Botanic Garden (1791), Darwin proposed viewing the stars as having their own lifecycles, like any other plant in a garden closer to home. This would mean that they had their infancy, their adult peaks, and… their periods of decay.

  Flowers of the sky! ye too to age must yield,
     Frail as your silken sisters of the field!
     Star after star from Heaven's high arch shall rush,
     Suns sink on suns, and systems systems crush,
Headlong, extinct, to one dark centre fall,
     And Death and Night and Chaos mingle all!

That concept did not sit easily with many academic and clerical Christians. A common belief at the time was that diseases and stars alike were spontaneously generated by the Christian god’s decree, and since the Biblical Fall only configured the Earth as a site of ruin, there was no reason for the broader canvas of the cosmos to be afflicted my humanity’s transgressions in the Garden of Eden. The stars should abide, right?

In the early 19th century, though, two versions of a “nebular hypothesis” were brought together by a French-to-English translation. The English version held that distant nebulae were starting points in stellar lifecycles—and that was more or less tolerable, because the concept only referred to other places in the cosmos. But when read in conjunction with the translated idea, that our solar system had been formed by similar processes, the nebular hypothesis hit a little too close to home for some.

Not for everyone, though. Histories of science tend to overlook that Deism was in full force in the 19th century, so when a Deistic reverend anonymously published Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation in 1844, this compilation of the (sometimes rotten) fruits of many sciences, including those touching on the formation of our solar system from a stellar nursery and the gradual progression of species to reach the lifeforms we see today, was a hit. Everyday people, Christians, Deists, and atheists alike, were wild about pop-sci texts then, just as they are today.

Some of the loftier writers, scientists, academics, and clergy were less impressed, and in the coming decade there was a huge argument, framed in part by mistaken astronomical data, about the validity of the nebular hypothesis and the nascent theory of stellar evolution. The Whewell-Brewster debate of the 1850s was one key element of that last-ditch effort to insist that the cosmos had been made as mere backdrop to the Christian destiny for man on Earth.

The 1859 development of the Bunsen-Kirchhoff flame spectroscope, which allowed for more precise identification of elements by their emission spectra, put an end to the debate. With this instrument, it was finally possible to confirm that nebula were not distinct phenomena but belonged to a continuity of cosmic materials whose evolution could be charted.

Modern astronomy and cosmology

We weren’t finished with our imaginative and optimistic view of the cosmos. Everyday people readily accepted that the universe was big and old, but spiritual beliefs also left many confident that there would be other populations on nearby worlds. After all, why would their god create so immense a universe and not fill it up? Throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, our beliefs in pluralism left us eager to latch on to the slightest possibility that the Moon, Mars, Venus, and maybe even the Sun had their own residents. Only as we eventually sent satellites out into our solar system were those views knocked down one by one.

But before we could send out satellites, the 1900s started with some tedious and methodical cataloging of the cosmos recorded by ever-improving telescopic equipment. We owe our current stellar classification system to Annie J. Cannon, one of the “human computers” at work developing a database of our known universe, while fellow deaf scientist Henrietta Swan Leavitt discovered a means of measuring distance beyond our solar system that would prove crucial for for deep-space research. Ejnar Herztsprung, Henry Norris Russell, Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin, and the developers of quantum physics all contributed to the eventual creation of a scheme for stellar composition, evolution, and classification formalized in the 1940s.

But it was Edwin Hubble‘s use of a 2.5 meter Hooker telescope in the 1920s that would decisively expand the reach of our cosmic wonder and knowledge. In the middle of a heated debate about the existence of what Heber Curtis had called “island universes” (i.e., galaxies), Hubble’s research confirmed that sightings of astral phenomena in what was then called the Andromeda Nebula are not part of our own—that we are indeed in the middle of a spiral galaxy ourselves: the great Milky Way.

Hubble’s work with redshifts (a waveform distortion effect that helps us measure time and distance in deep space) also confirmed that our universe’s galaxies were drifting apart: an observation in keeping with Jesuit priest Georges Lemaître’s (scientifically-informed) speculation that we exist in an expanding universe, the origin of which can be traced back to a single point. Cumulative observations and mathematical analyses would eventually give us an age of our cosmos (13.8 billion years, give or take a Tuesday), and the Big Bang theory.

This latest leap into deep-space exploration isn’t just about what lies beyond. It’s also about what connects humanity across many millennia of recorded time.

While Roger Penrose, Stephen Hawking, George F.R. Ellis, Alan Guth, and a host of other cosmologists from the late 1960s through mid-1990s hashed out the mathematical frameworks needed to make sense of deep-space intel about the development of our universe, humanity also set about creating and launching key satellites and telescopes to further our understanding of the cosmos.

Voyagers 1 and 2 launched in 1977, initially to study Jupiter and Saturn but also gifting us insight into Uranus, Neptune, and the limits of our heliosphere.

The Cosmic Background Explorer mission ran from 1989 to 1993, studying cosmic microwave background radiation and ultimately offering corroborating evidence for the Big Bang theory.

The Hubble Space Telescope launched in 1990 to low Earth orbit, and its five main instruments have been providing us with high-resolution visible-light images ever since. It’s been crucial to deepening our understanding of the universe’s expansion rate while providing a wealth of material for ongoing astrophysics advancements.

In 1999, the Chandra X-ray Observatory began its own, ongoing mission, which has yielded insights into stellar variations, black holes, galaxies and nebulas, supernovas, and exceptional cosmic events. The Compton Gamma Ray Observatory and Spitzer Space Telescope missions, now complete, rounded out NASA’s “Great Observatories” series of late-1990s and early 2000s telescopic missions.

Infinity, and beyond

The James Webb Space Telescope is called a successor to the Hubble, but it’s really a successor to everything that’s come before. Whereas the Hubble focuses on visible light, the James Webb extends into the mid-infrared range as well. It was launched on December 25, 2021 to gather deep-space data from a gentle orbit in what’s called L2 Lagrange Point, a pocket of space just far enough from Earth to be clear of interference, while also balanced so perfectly by the Sun and Earth’s gravitational pulls that anything in its zone keeps pace with the Earth as it rotates around the Sun.

We’ve come a long way from the pattern-seeking Paleolithic cultures that marked the consistency of astronomical events and built animist representations of the constellations. Or have we? Histories of astronomy and cosmology reveal plenty of echoing perspectives over time. Multiple periods when we thought the stars shaped our lives and fortunes. Eras, thousands of years removed, when we grappled with our smallness against so great an expanse. Repeated instances when we optimistically imagined that neighboring worlds would harbor lifeforms, too.

In all that time, we humans have also warred and wounded. We have hurt each other in innumerable ways, both individually and systemically. The callousness and greed of those in power has caused us great suffering, and delayed the advancement of technologies and practices that could more quickly have improved the lives of all.

We are not a perfect species.

But when we choose to look up, and to wonder, as our ancestors have done for millennia come before—in those brief moments, we are united by something greater: our age-old yearning to know just a little more.

GLOBAL HUMANIST SHOPTALK M L Clark is a Canadian writer by birth, now based in Medellín, Colombia, who publishes speculative fiction and humanist essays with a focus on imagining a more just world.