“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” So says Hamlet to his school chum after a chilling encounter with a ghost. The line went through my mind as I looked at the first image released by NASA from the James Webb Space Telescope, the marvel of engineering and audacity recently parked and unfolded in an orbit roughly 1 million miles from home.
Operating so far away gives the Webb supersensitivity to infrared light that cannot be seen by the human eye. It can see much, much farther than the low-orbiting Hubble Space Telescope. And because light travels at a constant speed, seeing farther in distance is the same as looking more deeply back in time.
The image is a picture from 4.6 billion years ago. This is only the first of many mind-boggling concepts contained in the spellbinding frame. A pitch-black background is speckled with thousands of distinct lights, some starlike in their brilliance, others smudgy, and still others smaller than pinpoints.
All these distinct lights are contained in a tiny speck of space. How tiny? Scientists proposed this way of envisioning: Take a single grain of sand, hold it out at arm’s length, and compare it with your entire field of vision. That is the speck of space Webb looked at to acquire its first observation.
Those thousands of lights in that speck of space are not individual stars like our sun. They are entire galaxies. The one galaxy we know best, our own Milky Way, contains anywhere from 100 billion to 400 billion stars.
And here it might be helpful to spend a moment with the concept of a billion.
The word gets tossed around a lot, but the scale of it is not easily grasped. If you spent eight solid hours each day counting off the seconds, every day of the year without a break, starting at age 5, you would need to live almost to age 100 to reach 1 billion. In 100 such lifetimes, a person might count the stars of this single galaxy — one of thousands in a speck of the universe.
Thankfully, some people are better able to absorb such vastness, to get their heads around it and to think on such a scale, than I am. Their philosophies (as Hamlet might put it) are sufficient to conceive an instrument that records infinitesimal waves of energy emitted around the time the Earth was formed; to deploy that instrument at a position in space four times farther than the moon; and thus to take a picture of thousands of galaxies containing trillions of stars.
Other images, released by NASA on July 12, demonstrate the versatility of Webb’s magnificent eye. Peering at the blur of light that Hollywood’s Frank Capra imagined as an angel, in “It’s A Wonderful Life,” the new telescope compiled a detailed image of newly forming galaxies crashing into and through one another, tugging at one another’s stars and triggering the formation of new stars as one of the galaxies swirls around a massive black hole emitting the energy of 40 billion suns.
Another startling image looks like a painted mountain range studded with brilliant flecks of light but is actually a picture of cosmic dust and superheated gas driven by the energy of new star formation across distances many times larger than our solar system.
Yet another dazzling pair of images unpacks the story of a star’s gradual death, its energy pulsing away in rings. And in the background, deep in time, are galaxies and more galaxies and more galaxies.
It’s not too much to say that a handful of images published over the space of 24 hours has already justified the decades of work and $10 billion invested in the Webb telescope. This is Hubble on steroids, the closest humans have yet come to glimpsing the true dimensions and inner workings of the universe. Our too-solid flesh prevents us from traveling across such distances, but we can look.
And perhaps by gazing outward, we will be inspired to examine anew our own existence. Earth is so small and humanity so transient, yet as far as we know we are the only ones watching and deciphering this cosmic unfolding. We turn steadily around a small but reliable star, and were it not for the problems we cause ourselves, we would live in a near-utopia.
The more we can see the scale of the universe — the innumerable heavens and countless earths — the smaller our part in it feels. Smaller, yet more precious. For the farther we see, the humbler we become, and the fruit of humility is gratitude.