JOHN DeMONT: Finding awe and illumination in the infinite skies

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We live in the age of awesome, a term that is now everywhere enough to pepper our conversation in place of old-time phrases like “thank you” and “that is great to hear,” while also able to describe the taste of a bowl of ramen, and the quality of the latest Marvel movie. 

I would argue, though, that the actual feeling of awe, of being truly wonderstruck and humbled by something, is as elusive as it has ever been. 

An article in Psychology Today, meant to explain the reverence people felt towards the feats of the 2012 Olympic games, said two things must happen for an event to inspire awe: it must occur on a vast scale, and the moment must have a profound effect on us, “forcing us to revise how we view the world.”

Events of that magnitude do not roll around often in a person’s life. Nonetheless, we seek them out: in the wild, in the stands at a sporting arena, theatre, or concert hall, seated on a meditation cushion, or a church pew, because those moments transcend the everyday, expand our understanding of life, and, as was said in the same Psychology Today article, forever change our “definition of what it means to be human.”

And I think we can agree, can we not, that the more moments that awe us — that remind us that today’s troubles don’t really mean much in the cosmic scheme of things — the better?

We had one of those what-did-we-just-witness moments last week, when NASA released five of the earliest images from the James Webb Space Telescope. 

The scientific world was mighty excited about what it saw: the images from the $10-billion platform were sharper and of better quality than anyone expected. 

The Webb telescope also picked up evidence of water vapor, haze and some previously unseen clouds around WASP-96b, a planet about the size of Saturn, which could help reveal whether smaller bodies orbiting other stars are habitable.

But did you see the other images? The amoeba-like blue and orange nebula, a dying star, sending out rings of gas and dust. The whorls of Stephan’s Quintet, a tight cluster of five galaxies millions of light years away.

The world surely emitted a collective gasp at the sight of a distant star cluster called SMACS 0723, hailed as one of the deepest images mankind has ever seen of the cosmos. 

I know I did, because my knowledge of the heavens can be boiled down to a single fact: that when you look up in the night sky, you do not see what you think you see. 

What I mean is that it takes so long for those distant images of stars, planets, clusters, and nebulae to reach our human eyes that by then some of the celestial bodies have morphed into something else or may have entirely faded to black. 

Though we believe we are looking at something immediate, like the 6 o’clock news, what is before us is something ancient, like the oldest home movie ever made.

Webb’s infrared capabilities and larger mirrors allow it to penetrate cosmic dust and see faraway light from further back in time than any previous telescope. 

Profound implication

The light from SMACS 0723 was thought to have originated 13.8 billion years ago, a number so unimaginably distant that it makes my head swim.

So does this: when we look at that image, we see light captured just after the Big Bang, the event thought to have created the universe some 14 billion years ago.

The implication of this fact is somewhat profound: when we stare at that huge star cluster, surrounded by the arcs of light from the previously undetectable galaxies lying behind SMACS 0723, we are peering back almost to the beginning of time, bringing us perhaps as close as we will ever be, in the poet’s words, to touching the face of God. 

That notion is too much for me. Then again, so is the most mind-boggling of the first batch of Webb images: the Carina Nebula, which a New York Times writer said “resembled a looming, eroded coastal cliff dotted with hundreds of stars that astronomers had never seen before.”

Looking over that cliff, into the infinite, it is impossible, at least for a minute, to think about earthly things like the soaring cost of filling up a gas tank, and even the evil afoot in Ukraine. 

When I look at it, I feel the same way Tim Doucette, owner of the Deep Sky Eye Observatory in South Quinan, Yarmouth County, did when glimpsing the Webb telescope images this week. 

“Who knows what we are going to discover?” said Doucette, an amateur astronomer who is legally blind but can see objects in the night sky with startling clarity, which, in itself, is awe-inspiring.

“Maybe, some new physics, planets with life on them. We have only had telescopes in space for 50 years. We are just scratching the surface of what we may discover if we don’t blow ourselves up.”

What a notion. What a time to be alive. 



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