One Image

James Webb Space Telescope image of SMACS J0723, a supercluster of galaxies around 5.12 billion light years away.

As I watched NASA unveil JWST’s image of the most magnificent gravitational lens I have ever seen, an emotional and humbling excerpt from Carl Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” crossed my mind. While I zoomed in on the image – which is now my writing laptop’s screensaver – I remembered that speech, the first I ever indulged in and memorized, with its “That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you know, everyone you love, everyone you’ve ever heard of, every human being there ever was, lived out their lives,” and the fact that the aggregate of all human civilization has occurred exclusively on a “mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.” I saw our small speck of blue – that small plane of turquoise once suspended in the sunbeam that inspired Sagan’s speech – superimposed against an image taken by humanity’s most dramatic accomplishment.

I realized that if we were to place our planet against that impossibly large supercluster 5.12 billion light years away – even if we placed it only a few light years away, billions of times closer than the galaxies behind it – our home would not accompany a sole pixel, as it did in the Pale Blue Dot image; no, our planet, the home of every living thing, every single person, we have ever known and not known, would be less, much less, than a pixel – a trillionth of a pixel, a speck so minute and so insignificant that the very cameras we sent to space would not be able to detect it. A grandiose spectacle of pure mass stands behind the cradle of our existence, and our tiny home blocks none of it. 

The most successful astronomy projects ever – the telescope, the first moon landings, the Voyager space probes, Hubble, Chandra, and James Webb – seek to project our technological magnificence, our coming of age as an advanced and mature civilization; yet we are always instead humbled, shown that our brilliance, however justified or legitimate, is insignificant – frivolous, even – compared to the scope of our universe. We are infinitely small beings, barely larger than the atomic constituents of our bodies, standing on a small rock floating through an infinite expanse of dark and light. No matter our achievements, no matter our problems, no matter our capabilities, we are still an extraordinarily “small stage in a vast cosmic arena.” In moments like this, when the skies have opened up to us and revealed to us our grand insignificance, Sagan’s “Pale Blue Dot” is the most fitting explanation of our true presence on this planet.

It, being the speech and the image, establishes the true insignificance of our issues. It demonstrates the frivolity of war, division and classification. It proves that dividing ourselves into countries, states, groups of people, and ideologies only makes ourselves more negligible in the universe than we already are. No other image objectively excoriates our useless divisions and restrictions of right, unity and peace, than this view of a long-distant supercluster, lensing a long-dead galaxy which is still quadrillions of times larger than our entire planet. 

Since astronomy first inspired me – similar to how it inspired me with this image – I have dreamt of living in a small, solar-powered ranch twenty miles southwest of Socorro, New Mexico. I have dreamed of working as an offsite astronomer in Socorro, processing and studying the information obtained by the nearby Very Large Array. I can already see that twenty-acre plot, the desert sunsets, the coyotes and the mountain lions, the scorpions and the small desert shrubs. I can feel myself reading and eating dinner, watching the sunset, walking to the small dome a few acres from my house, setting up my telescope for unpolluted imaging and observation, and watching the stars – the three-thousand of them strong, coruscant sparkles against a spectacular heart of darkness – in explicit awe, until the next day’s astronomical work impels me to go to sleep – knowing that I will wake up the next day to begin again that same inspiring and eternal process. I can find myself sleeping under the stars, as I do already at the Milwaukee Astronomical Society Observatory. I can see myself writing my heart out in the middle of the night. I can already sense the exhilaration of living under the darkest of skies, in perfect solitude, able to pursue both knowledge and peace in a life dominated by my foremost passion.

The James Webb Space Telescope has opened up an entire new universe for us, ready to be explored. It is our job now to explore that universe – and to note or even revel in our insignificance in that universe. It is our duty to realize that this insignificance – exemplified best by the images released today and yesterday – is only greater reason for us to unite as a people, as a planet, knowing that our inhumanities, wars and divisions are even more insignificant than the speck upon which we live. 

We have entered a new stage in a vast cosmic arena. As new images continue to shake the internet and the cores of our souls, let us not forget the lessons that those images teach us – that we as a people must be humble and united, understanding that our entire world, our entire lives, everything we know and love, is but the smallest speck, the smallest constituent in a great, expansive universe. As we continue to enter new stages, let us ensure that we enter them together.