Is this now?

Saying the universe is vast is an understatement, though it sounds better than saying we have no idea about the nature or extent of everything we have no idea about. These are not your project’s unknown unknowns. This is where words fail. Recently, NASA revealed the first images from its James Webb Space Telescope. If ever there were a moment to bring out words like vast, immeasurable, or incomprehensible, this is it. Sagan put it best, referring to our exploration of all that’s out there with his usual poetic perfection, where “we have waded a little out to sea, enough to dampen our toes or, at most, wet our ankles.” Alternately, the blunt analogy would be that we are the baby who’s been shown a quick peek of the night sky full of stars, on a small screen, in a Disney movie.

Stephan’s Quintet, taken by the NASA Webb Telescope. Credit: NASA

Like a new camera, the world quickly compared pictures from Webb with those from Hubble. As if we now have the latest full-frame camera hanging off our neck, the Hubble shots seem to be from the previous model. Though those old pictures do the trick and amaze us still, for now. Just as quickly, Webb’s unexpected costs, delays, and the effect on other NASA projects, or non-projects as these never came about due to lack of funding, are staged to be forgotten. All is forgiven. This is the “Hubble Psychology,” though it may be that soon we give joint credit to the syndrome and call it the “Hubble/Webb Psychology.” In this syndrome, we finally see the benefit from an unexpectedly lengthy and costly project, and not just any benefit, but a striking success that overshadows all previous narratives, including the naysayers.

It’s easy for us humans to embrace stories of sacrifice, the drawn-out battle for a just cause, worthwhile once victory is in hand (queue inspirational music in the background.) We are perhaps hard-wired this way, groups with this leaning carrying on, and their genes, if not specific individuals. This is not a simple trick to pull off. Plenty of large-scale projects offer sacrifices at the altar of progress only to find that when completed and ready for action, the gods are less than impressed.

Aside from these intangibles, some things can be counted. Surprisingly, the cost of building Hubble and Webb, adjusted for inflation with some arguable puts and takes, do not differ all that much. But like the new camera for a little more, the one you get today is much better. Perhaps there is FOMO in astronomy too?

“Your analogy is flawed.”

Progress isn’t always easy to measure, in dollars, sensitivity, or size of a primary mirror. Growth, as in improved performance, looked at in isolation will always seem like progress, but it’s also important to ask what’s sustainable and what’s the environment. The fungus duplicating itself daily in a bottle is prospering for a long while, but when the bottle is half full, it’s only a day away from discovering the limits of growth. Even when we know this, humans being more capable than a fungus, measuring progress is problematic.

Suppose one day we tackle the goal of going out there ourselves, mapping stars and studying nebulae first-hand. We could end up at the debate in Cixin Liu’s “The Three-Body Problem,” where we dream of people generations hence leaving our solar system and we research “curvature propulsion.”

Cheng Xin pondered the strand of hair that had been moved two centimetres by curving space. “You are saying that you’ve invented gunpowder and managed to make a firecracker, but the ultimate goal is to make a space rocket. A thousand years may separate those two achievements.

“Your analogy is flawed,” Bi Yunfeng said, “We have invented the equation relating energy to mass, and we’ve discovered the principle of radioactivity. The ultimate goal is to make the atom bomb. Only a few decades divide those two achievements.”

-Cixin Liu, Deaths End, book 3 in The Three-Body Problem Trilogy

Lost in the Webb pictures, who wouldn’t dream of one day going out there, a thousand years from now, or not as far? NASA once funded such research, up through about 2002, looking into the principles that might take space explorers well beyond anything imagined today. In a public forum, a NASA spokesperson, asked what NASA was doing about developing “warp speed,” had a ready answer – “we are working on it.” Today that’s not the case.

Yet it’s not only unimaginable distances to the places that have taken shape and detail since the first telescopes. It’s also about time. As we look at the Webb images, we must ask, “is this now?”  like an awakened host from Westworld. The answer is “no.” This is not now. As with Hubble’s, the pictures from Webb are everything as it once was, a very long time ago. We can look at them like vintage Super-8 movies, wondering where these people ended up. If we headed toward the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, which we see in Webb’s pictures at a distance of 4.6 billion light years, we see how *and where* it was. We picture the ball in flight. If we head that way one day, we would have to course correct to have enough energy to catch up to where it has moved since, away from us, even further.

Telescopes from Galileo’s first models to Hubble to Webb remind us of all that awaits. Unfortunately, we won’t be going there anytime soon, but we can dream. And thank you, NASA. Those pictures will do quite well for now.

Galaxy Cluster SMACS 0723, taken by the NASA Webb Telescope. Credit: NASA

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