What the James Webb Telescope’s New Pictures Can Teach Us About Awe, Humility and Meaning in Life

On July 12th 2022, humanity has been given the chance to peer into the depths of the early universe, by grace of the James Webb Space Telescope.

James Webb is the largest Space Telescope ever built. Its goal is to help scientists search for light from the first stars and galaxies that formed after the Big Bang. NASA has been working on and developing this project since the early 2000s. And after many delays, it was finally launched into space in December 2021. I’ve actually watched the mission live and it was breathtaking.

After more than 6 months in orbit, the JWST finally delivered some of the most anticipated products of its work. With an accuracy and clarity that exceeded even the most optimistic predictions, the JWST presented images to be remembered for generations to come.

In 1995 Hubble has produced the famous Deep Field picture, revealing the sea of galaxies that populate even the tiniest region of space; a region so dark that astronomers didn’t expect it was hiding anything. Today, JWST continued the tradition to present even clearer images of the marvelous universe we find ourselves in.

Hubble Deep Field picture showing tens of thousands of glowing galaxies
Hubble Deep Space Field (1995)

The implications of this astonishing feat go well beyond the scientific community. These images represent a testament to the brilliance of humans coming together, and a reminder of our place in the universe. It enlarges us and humbles us at the same time. It connects us to the dawn of the universe and it also anchors our roots deeper on Earth.

The scientists who were privileged to take a sneak peek at the pictures before the rest of us, spoke about the impact the images had on them, not just as scientists, but as human beings.

Below is the new version of the Deep Field picture. Each one of these lights is a galaxy containing millions of stars. In the middle, there’s the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, whose light was emitted 4.6 billion years ago. This image will help scientists understand better the formation of galaxies, by comparing the ones in this picture, with the ones that are closer to us, to track their evolution.

Some galaxies appear warped. This is called gravitational lensing, a phenomenon predicted by Einstein. The massive mass of this galaxy cluster is acting as a magnifying mirror, distorting the galaxies behind it.

James webb space telescope
JWST Deep Field, showing Galaxy cluster SMACS 0723 4.6 billion years ago. Credit: NASA

Astronomy is one of the sciences that humbles us. It opens the whole universe (at least the parts we have access to) to us.

A cosmic perspective may be what we need to put the culture wars behind us and soak in the truth of our existence: we’re on an insignificant planet in the middle of an ordinary solar system, moving through space in a tiny spot of an average galaxy, among million others.

It’s not uncommon for astronauts who’ve been to space to report feelings of awe and wonder, looking back at our “pale blue dot.” The sight of our planet imbue those who had the privilege to observe it with the realization that we’re all we’ve got.

The world would perhaps be a better place if the people we look up to, in turn looked up at the night sky once in a while. This exercise in humility and reverence could reveal that many of the differences we’re ready to kill ourselves over are not so significant after all.

Looking up as a spiritual exercise

Consider looking up a spiritual exercise. Its purpose is to afford us a better understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe. To open ourselves up to the wonders of the cosmos, as well as recognize the cosmos in us.

As Neil deGrasee Tyson likes to say, we are stardust.

Stoics referred to this exercise as “the view from above.” They considered it an efficient way of melting away our worries, anger or dissatisfaction. In the presence of the vastness of spacetime, our personal affairs seem trivial.

Consider your place in the universe. We’re but a mere spec of dust in this grandiose cosmic play. Times flows through us like a string through the eye of a needle.

Get in the habit of placing your current problems in a larger perspective. Saying “In the grand scheme of things, this doesn’t matter” is not negating its importance to you, but it asserts that it’s probably not as consequential as you might think.

The insights gained from this exercise may allow us to loosen our grip on reality, stop trying to control every little thing.

Here’s Marcus Aurelius, quoted by Pierre Hadot in Philosophy as a way of life:

Watch and see the courses of the stars as if you were running alongside them, and continually dwell in your mind upon the changes of the elements into one another; for these imaginations wash away the foulness of life on the earth. When you are reasoning about mankind, look upon earthly things below as if from some vantage point above them.

Awe vs. Hopelessness

Some may argue that there’s a dark side to this way of looking at life. On the one hand it can free us from our irrelevant dramas, but on the other hand it can make us prone to nihilism and despair.

If the universe is indifferent to our turmoil and we don’t play any role in the unfolding of cosmic events, then what is the point of it all? Our lifespan pales in comparison to that of the universe and the world will keep spinning long after we’re gone. The universe is indifferent to our will.

With every new scientific breakthrough, our sphere of “what we know” enlarges a tiny bit, while the sphere of “known unknowns” keeps expanding even further.

However bleak these realities may seem, I think they hold in themselves the very answer to our feelings of distress.

Precious Impermanence

The beauty of this life lies in its impermanence. We are finite beings and can only glimpse eternity in the span of a moment. All things that we cherish are finite and that is precisely what makes them meaningful.

  • a special vacation with your loved ones
  • a goosebumps-inducing song
  • a life-changing novel

All these come to an end eventually. Just imagine what it would be like if those carried on forever. I don’t think we can even wrap our brains around that. The beauty of this life is in learning to accept our condition and grasping the full existential implications it brings.

The transient nature of things is what makes us appreciate life. Each moment is special because it’s unique and it won’t come twice. The Japanese idiom Ichi-go ichi-e describes the concept of appreciating the unrepeatable nature of a moment. Even if you may find yourself in the same place with the same people more than once in your life, each of those meetings has its own features, that can’t be replicated.

Our life may not be significant in a cosmic sense, but that doesn’t render it meaningless. It just deflates our ego. It sobers us to the reality of a cold and impersonal universe.

Also, pondering on the vastness of space can transform how we relate to ourselves and other people:

  • That one time in elementary school when you embarrassed yourself? Inconsequential.
  • Your argument with that co-worker? Fleeting words that you’ll probably forget in a few months.
  • Those other people you’re scared will judge you? everyone’s too focused on themselves to care that much about you.

Final thoughts

I hope you’ll stop today for a few minutes to marvel at these pictures and appreciate how lucky you are to have lived in a time and place where these kinds of discoveries are possible.

We’re not made for eternity, but we can taste it by looking at the night sky. This cosmic perspective is available to anyone who knows where to look.

Further reading

The Cosmic Perspective by Neil deGrasse Tyson

The View from Above by Mark Ralkowski

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