One month after the James Webb Space Telescope's first images, the world hasn't exactly been shattered and remade. But making epic knowledge more tangibly applicable has never been easy. That's where humanist thinking comes into play.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The Humanist Light Source Global Humanist Shoptalk

In this Season One closer, we explore the history of the light bulb, and what aligning ingenuity with literal illumination has done for us as a culture (for better, and for worse). When we consider how best to uplift fellow humans today, what lessons can the light bulb and its histories teach us about how not to measure success?
  1. The Humanist Light Source
  2. The Humanist Monument
  3. The Humanist Punk Aesthetic
  4. The Humanist Sneakerhead
  5. The Humanist Fire

While I wait for my early morning exercise class, I listen to the chatter of yellow-breasted bichofué, and watch a city worker use a long husk of palm branch to sweep the night’s detritus from the square. On my warmup run, I tuned into a local news podcast, for analysis of the new president’s first week in office: Gustavo Petro’s bid to reopen negotiations with the ELN guerrillas, his plan to tax sugary and other processed foods along with closing corporate tax loopholes, and his response to escalating violence in vulnerable departments. When I popped onto social media, it was all U.S. news of top-secret nuclear documents and FBI raids, scattered amid word of more extreme weather events. In Canada, my city of birth seems to have recovered from a major blackout.

It’s been one month since our first photos from the James Webb Space Telescope, and like most of our astronomical feats, they haven’t exactly brought us to a new plane of everyday existence. Nature, our quotidian routines, our most critical political endeavors, our slings and arrows of social media trend cycles: all continue apace, though wonders yet unfold in the cosmos all around us.

When I first recorded the latest posted episode of Global Humanist Shoptalk, “The Humanist Astronomer”, a struggle was still in progress among native Hawaiians, to reclaim their land from a major terrestrial telescope project. I won’t say more about that project here (that would spoil the episode, which attempts a reframe by coming at the issue historically), except to note that, a few weeks ago, there was a major win for their activist movement. Control over the mountain Mauna Kea has been legislated out of university hands, into the stewardship of a group that will oversee land use in a way that limits commercial enterprise, while still celebrating the positive impact of astronomy research for the local economy.

This is a huge step in a wonderful and rewarding direction, but it also invites reflection on how much further we have to go, to ensure that new information about our cosmos truly serves as many on Earth as possible. If I had asked any one of the people in my morning exercise class, or the city worker sweeping the square, about this latest telescope and its achievements, I would have met with very little in the way of background knowledge. The feats of science, the extraordinary leaps a precious few of us have taken into learning about worlds beyond our own, have yet to find significant translation into the lives of most human beings.

What would our world look like, if they did?

Every time we help each other out of hardship, we’re helping each other into a better state to look upon the universe we share.

Looking up

It’s not that most people don’t have time to reflect on something above and beyond themselves. Very poor and hardworking people all the world over partake in this activity whenever they perform rituals of faith. It’s just that the sermons they listen to, or the religious texts they read, rarely ever incorporate increased knowledge about the cosmos. (Such would be a very humanist religion, that took the time to delight in new findings about the nature of their god’s creation!)

But to reflect on something above and beyond ourselves is also an act of immense reframing that requires us to overcome our day-to-day struggles. As such, it’s easily weaponized. Yes, okay, in the long run of cosmic time our lives are but brief opportunities to bear witness to existence itself, and we should treasure these fleeting moments while we can… but we’re still allowed to grieve lost friendships, betrayed partnerships, failed political initiatives, histories of familial and demographic trauma, and even every delicious treat of a meal we burn along the way.

The brilliant and messy fray of individual life goes on, in other words, long after we’ve looked upon the oldest galaxies ever captured by the fruits of human ingenuity.

The TV series For All Mankind, which imagines a world where the Soviets were first to the moon, and the U.S. had to reframe its sense of destiny in the aftermath, captures this balance of the personal and the epic well. Individual stories matter in their moment, but there is also a broader cadence, a species-wide wave of forward thinking, that carries all these privately urgent tales along a deeper cosmic tide.

The question is: outside of entertainment media (where editing helps so much), in a world with so many competing bids for our attention, how can we carry the spark of greater cosmic knowledge into meaningful connectivity with our fellow human beings? How can we better manifest the truths given to some of us by so much increased understanding of our tiny place in so vast and extraordinary a universe?

The astronomer as humanist

Humanism calls for improved agency for all our fellow sentient beings. This includes an end to bondage, an end to carceral injustice, hunger, war, prejudice, and other tangible oppressions, that we might all be empowered to make the most of our brief lives. And that’s not nothing! Every time we help each other out of hardship, we’re helping each other into a better state to look upon the universe we share.

Astronomy and cosmology are brilliant human pursuits, which have yielded exceptional insights into our place in the cosmos. But they also require people to bear witness to their wonders, and so they require us to think like humanists, always, if their continued growth is to be assured. If we’re not keeping astronomy’s lessons even broadly in mind when we shape public policy, we’re losing sight of what few have had the chance to glimpse at all. Namely:

That we are all sharing a slender moment in the cosmos, and that it thus falls to us to make the most of it, to ensure that our fragile line of witnesses goes on.

Everything we do in the way of public works, we do as impending stardust.

How will you choose to ease Earthly suffering, and raise up the gazes of others, in the fleeting fray today?

Avatar photo

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.