The universe came to us

Infrared rays escaped from a newly formed galaxy about 13,100,000,000 years ago. The universe was young, gravity was still bringing stars and gases together, the heavier atoms had not yet been forged in abundance—but there was enough hydrogen to become helium, and fusion was already at work. The young stars in this young galaxy were on the move, sending out light across the spectrum and into every corner of this younger, smaller universe. They were emitted in all directions, so this particular stream of photons is nothing special. But it poured across the abysses of space, encountering almost nothing for most of its journey.

But mostly nothing is not nothing. The voids are unfathomable, but the law of large numbers is not. From time to time – say every 10 million or 50 million years – the light of this primordial galaxy passed by another galaxy (at least “near” on a galactic scale). Some of these other galaxies were yet to be born; some have already been torn apart; many were in the prime of their lives. All of them were closer and younger, measured by reference to a theoretical point along the direction of propagation of these rays. Each of these galaxies emitted its own infrared radiation, again in all directions, meaning some of its light was sent along the same general path as the older galaxy’s rays. These streams of photons did not move together, but more or less parallel. They weren’t heading for anything in particular.

Some time passed.

Then, about 4.6 billion years ago, these rays passed near a cluster of galaxies that future life-form would conveniently call SMAC 0723. This heap was big and heavy. So heavy, in fact, that its gravity would interfere with the photons rushing by; Even traveling at 186,000 miles per second (“miles” and “second” are both units of measurement that would be similarly created by this future life-form to quantify the universe) was not fast enough to escape the relentless pull of gravity . So the light was drawn in towards the galaxy and changes course. But it was still too fast and far from SMAC 0723 to be sure; it went on through the darkness, its path now describing not a line but an arc.

His new target was still pretty hopeless: a nebulous cloud of gas on an inner arm of an unremarkable spiral galaxy that would name this future life-form the Milky Way, in a burst of creativity compared to the nomenclature that spawned “SMAC 0723,” among other things. But 4.6 billion years is a long time; maybe there would be something there when the light came on.

And so the light came at the right time. By now there were many streams of photons, a few thousands and thousands of points of light from each of thousands of galaxies, each separated from the others by millions or billions of years and light-years. But their light was together. And in the path of that light was a certain point. The location of this point was a million miles from a unremarkable blue planet orbiting a unremarkable main sequence star. The size of this particular blob was roughly a grain of sand from the nearby planet, as seen from about a meter away. And the light hit something there and didn’t go any further. And this was the light:

Image credits: NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI.

Containing almost the history of the Universe, this microscopic light field is Webb’s First Deep Field, the first image released by the James Webb Space Telescope. It’s the first of many images the telescope will produce, but you’ll never forget your first. Your first one, however, forgets you: cold and beautiful, empty and teeming, this patch of heaven is a snapshot of a journey through time across the vast expanses of a universe that has room for everything and favor for nothing. We – you, me, we, This– we don’t matter.

This knowledge inspires for me two feelings that are diametrically opposed, but somehow not at odds with each other. The first feeling is – well, the word doesn’t exist because the words were created by a primitive featherless biped that had no conception of the true size of things or their place in them. But a few words come close to the point. Shy? Terror? Love? God?

How about understanding. The understanding that our existence is a cosmic rounding error and that nothing we can say or do can ever count in a universe too immense to count. If we disappeared tomorrow or didn’t show up at all, it would go unnoticed. I find that depressing and encouraging. All our joys and achievements, functionally meaningless; but also our pain and regrets and very human cruelties. A tiny speck of our sky contains more (and undoubtedly more life) than we can approximately understand. Why even try?

Well, because we can. That’s the second feeling that the images of the JWST evoke in me: something like pride. When things don’t make sense, there’s still order. and the Order is not unknowable.

We, this future life form, these primitive featherless bipeds, have built impossibly complex machinery and shot it to a gravitationally stable point in space to take pictures at a wavelength our eyes cannot see and send them back to us in a form that we can have. We did! We invented (or better understood) the engineering and physics needed to do it, and the social cohesion needed to make it practical, and the philosophy needed to interpret it; nothing else that crawls or swims on this blue planet even comes close. By coincidences of chemistry we exist, and by vagaries of evolution we have come to a point where we could learn a little more about the universe, which was happy to ignore us. We knew nothing; now we know something. Therein lies victory, even when the price is humility. By seeing and realizing our insignificance, we create meaning.

The Carina Nebula, a star-forming region about 8,500 light-years away. Image credits: NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI.
The Southern Ring Nebula, a dying star some 2,500 light-years away. Image credits: NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI.
Stephan’s quintet, a compact cluster of four galaxies 210-340 million light-years distant, plus a much closer fifth foreground galaxy, left. Image credits: NASA, ESA, CSA and STScI.

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