Science

Surely there has to be someone out there in this whole room – The Wire Science

Surely there has to be someone out there in this whole room - The Wire Science
Written by admin

The Lagoon Nebula captured by the Hubble Space Telescope. Image: NASA, ESA, STScI


  • On July 12, NASA released four full-color images taken by the newly launched James Webb Space Telescope.
  • A YouTuber shared a resized view of the deep field footage, captioning, “We’re so small I’m throwing up.” One journalist tweeted: “I can’t get past the structure in these. i feel destroyed The telescope destroyed me.”
  • The deep-field image doesn’t offer any new information about the size or age of the Universe, but it does make the vastness visible.
  • Instead of 100 billion stars in a galaxy we’re talking about a quadrillion stars – a number so big it feels like nonsense, you see why we need pictures to make sense of it.
  • Even though life is extraordinarily rare, on rare occasions it still seems like a quadrillion should mean there’s more to the universe than just us.

The first image from the James Webb Space Telescope showed a tiny speck in the sky, so small that it could be blocked out by holding a grain of sand at arm’s length to the sky. But with the telescope’s power — eighteen giant mirrors reporting from a million kilometers away — just 12.5 hours of observation time in this space reveals thousands of galaxies, some clustered together, others swooping and swirling. Even the tiny specks in the image are galaxies.

On July 12, NASA released four more images showing the range of the telescope: the spectrum of an exoplanet a thousand light-years away, showing its chemical composition (and the fact that it has clouds!); the nebula of a star’s explosive death; the best image so far of the galaxies by Stephan’s quintet; and a close-up of the Carina Nebula, a “stellar nursery.”

This is one of those great science moments that revolutionizes a field and excites the public. A mission 30 years in the makingJWST offers scientists unprecedented insights into the early universe, galactic and stellar evolution, and planets around other stars in our galaxy. The White House was right when it let the President unveil the first picture on July 11th. celebrities tweeted the picsand A flood of memes followed.

This was a whole new vocabulary of images to make sense of, but their intrinsic meaning was deliciously overwhelming, too. A YouTuber divided a zoomed out view positioning the deep field in the night sky with “We’re so small I gonna throw up”. A friend shared the picture of Carina Nebula on her Instagram Story with, “shhh hey buddy you want to feel feelings you were pretty sure the world as it is has permanently numbed you.”

Science experts were hardly immune. Science journalist Shannon Stirone tweeted, “I can’t overcome the structure in these. i feel destroyed The telescope destroyed me.” Emily Calendrelli, host of the Netflix show Emily’s Wonder Lab, captured a sentiment I’ve heard from many observers in a tik tok Video: “I look at this picture and think, We are by no means alone in the universe.” Well… is there?

In practice, the search for life beyond Earth is usually limited to our own galaxy, the only space where we would have a chance of discovering it. If life is rare, we might be alone in the Milky Way, but these JWST images invite us to zoom out and out and out. The deep-field image doesn’t offer any new information about the size or age of the Universe, but it does make the vastness visible. Instead of 100 billion stars in a galaxy we are now talking about a quadrillion stars (a number so big it feels like nonsense, you see why we need pictures to make sense of it).

Even though life is extraordinarily rare, on rare occasions it still seems like a quadrillion should mean there’s more to the universe than just us.

future

This confident speculation is “half science, half emotion,” astronomer Caleb Scharf, director of Columbia University’s Astrobiology Center, told me via email. All that space means more chances for life, but we don’t know how likely it is that life will arise anywhere, not even on Earth, where, with hindsight, it wrongly looks like a safe bet. Despite all the deep field’s abundant real estate, Scharf said, the probability of life “depends acutely on the part we don’t know, the odds on life, which can be unimaginably small, more or less canceling out the vast number of.” stars and galaxies.”

Astrophysicist Katie Mack told me via Twitter, “I find it extraordinarily incredible that life has existed on just one planet in one solar system (among hundreds of billions) in one galaxy (among trillions) for 13.8 billion years.” Sharp said he shared it feelingbut offered a caveat: “Until we know how likely life is to arise (or how it works), we really can’t say this ‘scientifically’, since it depends entirely on assumptions.” That is, you cannot extrapolate the probability of an event if you only have an example of its occurrence.

A lot of space does not require occupation. Part of the problem is age. The galaxies in the JWST Deep Field and the stars they contain are not like what we see in the sky: they are billions and billions of years older. In particular, the oldest red spots photographed in their youth—the youth of the Universe—would be chemically quite different from the Milky Way. The first stars formed from the remnants of the Big Bang, with only hydrogen and helium to work with.

Planets form from the same material as their stars, but these light elements are insufficient for worlds that can support life as we know it, or possibly planets at all. “In order for life as we know it to exist,” Scharf said, “the universe must have reached a certain age when enough of these elements have been made by stars,” Scharf said.

The JWST image of the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723. Image: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

But space is more than space for life. Perhaps it is limiting – or demeaning – to see and think of these vast cosmic structures, That’s room for more stuff like me. Anthropologist Lisa Messeri, author of place spacetold me, “When we are presented with these magnificent, enormously scaled images, we want to try to understand – we want to tame the magnificence.” So we seek the familiar. Maybe the room is the same as here, but a little bit different, we think idly. That The New York Times reported that after the July 11 event, as the press left the room, President Biden said, “I wonder how the press is in these other places.”

galaxies, nebulae, black holes. These impossibly large and, dare I say, strange structures become manageable when viewed in relation to life. “The sublime confronts us with this almost unfathomable immensity,” Messeri said, “and we are challenged to master it, to tame it, to make it understandable to our small human scale.” We do this by returning to the familiar scale of the planet.

The locations in the first images of JWST are not locations for us. But instead of trying to sprinkle them with familiar, earthly worlds, we can give in to the alienation and embrace the loneliness, letting it transform into a new kind of awe. Messeri told me that the JWST image that made her gasp was that of Stephan’s quintet, the galaxies engaged in a gravitational dance. “It was the scale,” she said, but not only that — the deep field eventually shows many more galaxies.

“To see these galaxies busy with something – that alone means not being alone.” Life doesn’t have to exist to have fellowship. “There’s another way of thinking about what it means to be alone that’s not a question of biology, it’s a question of geography and gravity.” Messeri called their relationship a “kind of galactic community.” But it’s a community we don’t have access to.

Scientists study for years to understand the value of a galaxy to themselves. The rest of us can be struck by its size and enchanted by the beautiful images (which are not raw images but extracted from the telescope data by scientists and made beautiful by a layer of human processing and coloring). So if we think Why is that important? Why is that beautiful? Why does this make me feel all sorts of great things? We can take a shortcut to this This feels meaningful and immense because it shows that there is room for life in the universe.

But sit with another possibility: what if we are alone? What if there is no other life at all? Then what is the value and significance of all these galaxies and almost innumerable stars?

The question of life in other galaxies will probably never really be answered, either in our lifetime or in humanity’s lifetime. We may or may not find microbes on another planet. We may or may not see traces of life in an exoplanet’s atmosphere with JWST or another powerful telescope; that kind of evidence would hardly be conclusive for anyone walking around out there. Perhaps one day we can pinpoint the probability of life arising, its abundance and preferences, and we may be able to apply these principles to galaxies outside our own.

But humans will never travel to the vastness of the universe seen in JWST’s images, will never meet them with our own eyes or our feet on their ground. We can look at the pictures taken by our telescopic emissaries and we can appreciate life on earth while being amazed by the cosmos. If we want aliens, the most alien kinship would be with the facets of the universe that have nothing to do with life at all.

future is a partnership of slate, New Americaand University of Arizona which examines new technologies, public policy and society.

About the author

admin

Leave a Comment