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A Journey Through Time and Space

Earlier this week, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope revealed new portions of the cosmos as they appeared earlier than 13 billion years ago, around the time the universe began its expansion.

Photographs are always images of the past. Whether the shutter clicked a fraction of a second ago or the children who once frowned at the camera are long-dead, the instant captured into an image  is now gone. But since photography dates back only to the 19th century, what we normally see is a past we can relate to, one we can attach to shared elements of history, references and emotions.

Every time I see images from space instead, I can see, but not “conceive” them and, for whomever is not a scientist, their explanation involves a degree of simplification that acquires a surreal, dreamy quality: “If an object is blue and lacks spikes, it’s a galaxy. These galaxies contain stars, but very little dust.” What does this mean to you, really?

Stephan’s Quintet, Interacting Galaxy Group. With its powerful, mid-infrared vision, the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) shows never-before-seen details of Stephan’s Quintet, a visual grouping of five galaxies. MIRI pierced through dust-enshrouded regions to reveal huge shock waves and tidal tails, gas and stars stripped from the outer regions of the galaxies by interactions. It also unveiled hidden areas of star formation. The new information from MIRI provides invaluable insights into how galactic interactions may have driven galaxy evolution in the early universe.
Stephan’s Quintet, Interacting Galaxy Group. With its powerful, mid-infrared vision, the Mid-Infrared Instrument (MIRI) shows never-before-seen details of Stephan’s Quintet, a visual grouping of five galaxies. MIRI pierced through dust-enshrouded regions to reveal huge shock waves and tidal tails, gas and stars stripped from the outer regions of the galaxies by interactions. It also unveiled hidden areas of star formation. The new information from MIRI provides invaluable insights into how galactic interactions may have driven galaxy evolution in the early universe. © NASA

Reading about the images published this week reminded me of a NASA exhibition in Milan a few years ago. It started with a chapter about the interconnectedness between scientific discoveries, art and science fiction, reflecting on how our imagination fostered the drive for scientific discoveries, while new findings keep feeding our fantasy. In that circumstance I saw for the first time the work of Chesley Bonestell, a painter born in California in 1888, whose artwork was credited with providing inspiration for the American space program. Bonestell used his knowledge derived from the medium of photography to imagine space landscapes through camera angles of the kind we can have on Earth. As a result, to the public of the 1940s his paintings looked “as though photographers had been sent into space.”

Painting is part of what needed to happen for the images of the Webb Space Telescope to be published for us. As journalist John Gapper notes in the Financial Times, their original grayscale look would not have been exciting or accessible enough for the large public. A telescope priced at 10 billion dollars needs to make its discoveries available outside the scientific world to justify its cost and keep investments flowing. Accordingly, scientists added colour to the images to make them both easier to understand and visually appealing to non-specialists.

SMACS 0723-73, Lensing Galaxy Cluster. Thousands of galaxies flood this near-infrared image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723. High-resolution imaging from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope combined with a natural effect known as gravitational lensing made this finely detailed image possible.
SMACS 0723-73, Lensing Galaxy Cluster. Thousands of galaxies flood this near-infrared image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723. High-resolution imaging from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope shows a natural effect known as gravitational lensing. © NASA

Stanford University historian Elizabeth Kessler emphasised the proximity of the resulting nuances of colour to those found in the history of American art, specifically the paintings related to the conquest of the “New World”, the “Wild West”. She suggests that this similarity, all but coincidental, captures our sensibilities using codes of visual communication that speak to our collective unconscious. 

The images gathered by the James Webb telescope, launched from French Guiana on Christmas day last year, are technically “photographs”, “written with light”. But, in contrast to the way this ordinarily happens with film or camera sensors, in the Webb telescope the information is gathered by a 6.5-metre reflector panel, then bounced off a mirror onto four sensors. The light that enables the telescope to take these photographs is infrared, allowing us for the first time to see through clouds of dust into deep space. The exposure time it took to gather the infrared light that gives shape to the image is approximately 12 and a half hours. This process is not what we ordinarily associate with picture taking.

Southern Ring Nebula. This side-by-side comparison shows observations of the Southern Ring Nebula in near-infrared light, at left, and mid-infrared light, at right, from NASA’s Webb Telescope.
Southern Ring Nebula. This side-by-side comparison shows observations of the Southern Ring Nebula in near-infrared light, at left, and mid-infrared light, at right, from NASA’s Webb Telescope. © NASA

What most fascinates me about these images is the time travel each one encapsulates. Light travels at approximately 300,000 km/sec (we know nothing else as fast), but given the enormous dimensions of the cosmos itself, it reveals distant objects only as they appeared in the deep past when that light was emitted. This means that the farther the object, the farther into the past we are looking at it. And different layers of distance within the same frame transport us through different moments in time. 

Thanks to the Webb telescope, we are now able to see some of the youngest galaxies in the cosmos, including those originating less than a billion years after the universe began to expand at the moment of the Big Bang (13.8 billion years ago). That point is also the moment when all scientific models break down. The closer look afforded by the Webb telescope therefore brings us closer to addressing questions about the origin of the universe, including, perhaps, questions about its ultimate significance.

Star-forming region in the Carina Nebula. What looks much like craggy mountains on a moonlit evening is actually the edge of a nearby, young, star-forming region NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula. Captured in infrared light by the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, this image reveals previously obscured areas of star birth. © NASA
Star-forming region in the Carina Nebula. What looks much like craggy mountains on a moonlit evening is actually the edge of a nearby, young, star-forming region NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula. Captured in infrared light by the Near-Infrared Camera (NIRCam) on NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, this image reveals previously obscured areas of star birth. © NASA

As I tried to wrap my head around this visual and conceptual overload, the electronic voice of late cosmologist Stephen Hawking–as recorded by Errol Morris in the documentary “A Brief History of Time” and released in 1991–echoed in my mind. Borrowing its title from the bestseller of the same name, the film centers on Hawking’s own questions about the origin of the cosmos and the concept of time. In one interview, Hawking recalls a 1981 conference on cosmology at the Vatican. On that occasion, he says, the Pope welcomed his study of the evolution of the universe but cautioned him not to inquire into the Big Bang itself since that was the moment of creation and hence the word of God. “I was glad [the Pope] did not know the subject of the talk I had just given,” Hawking said, “the possibility that the universe had no beginning, no moment of creation.”

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