first deep field image, 12 July 2022 (detail).
Courtesy NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI
the discoveries of the James Webb Space Telescope
through our moral universe...
with ever new and increasing wonder and awe,
the more often and steadily we reflect upon them:
the starry heavens above me
and the moral
law within me.
by Immanuel Kant
But for Immanuel Kant, the 'sensible world' of appearances emerged from cognitive faculties of the human mind, constitutive of observations gained through human experience.
Kant analogized his reframing of metaphysics to Copernicus's heliocentrism, in which the astronomer's observations made sense only when he placed the Sun, rather than Earth, at the centre.
The Enlightenment's radical political philosophy, shifting Europeans' governance from aristocratic absolutism to freedom gained through reason, dovetailed with Kant's philosophy of science.
Observations of a band of stars that appeared to enring the sky led him to surmise that the solar system was shaped like a disc around the Sun.
A reasoned universe and a
reasoned mind operated together.
If Kant's philosophy holds true, then anticipated astrophysical phenomena of the observable cosmos must continue to be integrated into humans' self-emplacement in an ever-expanding internal universe as well.
sophisticated technologies of visual perception - from Galileo's
spyglass to ground- and then space-based telescopes - mediate our
entwined expanding astrophysical and moral universes.
Astronomers expect that it will reveal novel astrophysical phenomena both one step beyond the familiar and the presently unimaginable.
With its 6.5-metre gold-coated primary mirror and unprecedented sensitivity to long infrared wavelengths, the telescope's deep field resolves distant star clusters in unparalleled detail.
These images could help astronomers model the 'cosmic spring' that led to the formation of galaxies through gravitational mechanisms and life itself.
The JWST could also pave the way to realize NASA scientists' long-quested goal to detect extraterrestrial life, expanding beyond microbes on the surface of Mars or in the Venusian atmosphere, which would shore up a generalized theory of biology and evolution.
The apprehension of biosignatures - indications of life in exoplanetary atmospheres - would demand a reordering, not only of how humans perceive the Universe, but of ourselves as living, if perhaps not lonely, beings within it.
flood this near-infrared image
of the galaxy cluster SMACS 0723,
captured by JWST, 12 July 2022 (full image).
Courtesy NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI
The latter is more
anticipated and sensible, but together they are just two points in a
series of ruptures in humans' perception of conjoined physical and
Each new scalar bound from the Earth - to the Moon, to the local solar system, to alien planets and galaxies, to the very fringes of the Universe - has prompted the reformation of our sense of being.
To test how the discovery of nature orders the nature of discovery of ourselves, we time-hop to Renaissance Italy.
Galileo Galilei improved on existing telescopes, and turned his spyglass to the heavens, writing of striking discoveries in his epochal treatise Sidereus Nuncius (1610), or 'Starry Messenger'.
Observing what a contemporary had dubbed the 'strange spottednesse' of the Moon, Galileo wrote that its surface was not,
As the art historian Samuel Y. Edgerton, Jr. describes it, Galileo, disciplining his eyes and hand through artistic practices flowering in Florence, rendered the Moon in both soft sepia watercolors and dramatic chiaroscuro engravings.
Galileo's Moon - an imperfect body rife with craggy geologies, pockmarked by ancient collisions - related familiar terrestrial to unfamiliar lunar features, and required a symbolic reordering.
Because the Catholic Church's Moon, upon which the Virgin Mary reigned, referenced the Immaculate Conception, Galileo's depiction called into question the concept of the Moon - and therefore God's universe - as perfect and pure.
Galileo had corrupted Dante's 'eternal pearl', and the new Moon's representation came to enter religious frescoes - a tacit if wary acceptance of a morphing moral order.
All images from
Sidereus Nuncius (1610),
or 'Starry Messenger',
by Galileo Galilei
Next, in careful logs over December 1609 and January 1610, Galileo reported curious pricks of light gambolling about the planet,
Upon observing only two celestial bodies on the 11th night, Galileo,
came to radically disrupt
humans' perception of their world...
We now know these objects as the moons Io, Europa, Ganymede and Calisto, and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory is planning to send a probe to Europa in 2024 to investigate the possibility of life in its watery oceans.
But four centuries ago, Galileo hastened an insuperable fracture of entwined astrophysical and moral beliefs.
Further substantiating Copernicus' model, Galileo fatally destabilized the prevailing geocentrism that the Church had held for centuries.
This time, the Church met Galileo's observations with explicit resistance, imperiling his carefully constructed position in nuanced Italian court politics.
The historian of science Mario Biagioli describes how Galileo had, initially, ingeniously manipulated the tides of power in the Florentine court, leveraging his astronomical discoveries to fashion himself as a philosopher (not a mere mathematician of lower social grade).
By dubbing the moons the 'Medici planets', he augmented that family's supposedly God-given mythology.
But in 1633, the Roman Court found Galileo,
Galileo was condemned to house arrest for the remainder of his life.
Biagioli attributes the 'fall of the favorite' to fickle papal dynamics rather than merely to religious or scientific resistance. In Kant's parlance, Galileo's freshly 'sensible' moons could not be reconciled with short-sighted power struggles.
Nevertheless, Galileo's findings came to radically disrupt humans' perception of their world.
A half-century later, Sir Isaac Newton reworked Galileo's findings in his monumental Principia (1687).
He decisively located gravity as an empirical description of all objects and a fundamental theory even beyond the observable world.
The laws of motion governed not only humans' relationship to objects in their world and their place on Earth, but alien bodies outside of immediate perceptibility.
Time-travel three centuries to the Harvard College Observatory in 1912, when the 'computer' Henrietta Swan Leavitt earned 30 cents an hour to determine stellar brightness, positions and movements over time.
Although the observatory's director Edward Pickering 'chose his staff to work, not to think,' Leavitt's tedious labour afforded her intimate familiarity with the photographic plates.
Partially deaf, her visual immersion let her track the stars in the Large and Small Magellanic Clouds (objects we now know to be dwarf galaxies, macerated and then regurgitated by the Milky Way).
Leavitt formulated the relation between the length of a 'Cepheid variable star's' brightening and dimming to precise time intervals, leading astronomers to calculate not only their distance from Earth but the scale of the galaxy.
By the 1920s, astronomers debated if the Milky Way galaxy contained the whole of the cosmos or if spiral nebulae were their own separate 'island universes' - a distinction that would define the scope of the cosmos.
Edwin Hubble used the world's most powerful telescope at the Mount Wilson Observatory near Los Angeles to study the Andromeda 'spiral nebula' in unprecedented resolution.
In a now-famous image, Hubble crossed out the 'N' and replaced it with 'VAR!' as he realized that the 'nova' star was actually a 'variable' star; calculating its distance from Earth, he realized that Andromeda was too far away to be incorporated into the Milky Way.
We might read Hubble's '!' as a punctuation of surprise as he too 'mov[ed] from doubt to astonishment':
Edwin Hubble's photographic plate
of Andromeda, 1923.
Courtesy of the
Carnegie Institution for Science
Leavitt lent Hubble the means to harness a sophisticated telescopic technology to amplify natural 'sensibility', but her foundational insight was hard-won.
Pickering glossed over Leavitt's contributions, publishing the results in his name; similarly, the Harvard astronomer Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin's work on stellar atmospheres - later hailed as 'the most brilliant PhD thesis ever written in astronomy' - was diminished and then co-opted by her advisor Henry Russell.
But the astronomical contributions of Leavitt, Payne-Gaposchkin and others eventually led to a progressive social perception:
spectacular 'baby pictures'
of the Eagle Nebula's
'Pillars of Creation'...
NASA honored Hubble decades later with the eponymous telescope that launched into outer space in 1990.
Its grand mission was to research black holes, the solar system and, through its unparalleled sensitivity to visible wavelengths, the most distant galaxies in the Universe.
But there was an issue: the telescope returned fuzzy images.
After five missions to outer space, astronauts repaired the mirror, which NASA described as,
In 1995, the now beloved and long-lived telescope returned spectacular 'baby pictures' of the Eagle Nebula's 'Pillars of Creation' - billowing columns of gas and dust that are inchoate stars.
The Pillars of Creation.
Photo courtesy NASA, ESA
and the Hubble Heritage Team
The Hubble Deep Field layered 342 separate exposures over 10 days in 1995 to show thousands of young galaxies 12 billion light-years away.
Astronomers confirmed that matter is evenly distributed at very large scales, further evidence of an expanding and cooling post-Big Bang universe.
Though scientists had suspected the prevalence of black holes in the Universe, they learned from Hubble images that supermassive black holes cluster at the centre of galaxies.
Hubble ultra deep field,
3 June 2014.
The visual metaphors that NASA and the media used to describe Hubble's technical attributes ('needing glasses', or capturing the Universe's 'baby pictures') extended to material revelations.
Astronomers used the data to unveil Pluto's minuscule moon Styx, to analyze the aurora around Ganymede and infer its saltwater ocean, and even to fortuitously catch the Refsdal supernova's overpowering luminescence as the star explodes and dies.
The Hubble telescope was also crucial to astronomers' observations of distant supernovae in 1998 that revealed that the Universe is not only expanding, but accelerating.
The mysterious 'dark energy' pushes spacetime to the unfathomable sublime, and accounts for about two-thirds of the Universe, forcing physicists to fundamentally rethink cosmological models.
Coming out of the 1970s, particle physicists struggled to unify cosmological theories to describe all matter in the Universe.
Recalling his days as a graduate student, the physicist Alan Guth at MIT tells me he was driven by the assumption that 'nature was governed by a strong sense of simplicity.'
But the observable Universe (its density, its composition) wasn't matching the theoretical models, leading Guth to develop the concept of cosmic inflation:
Cosmic inflation strongly supported the Big Bang explanation.
Data from NASA satellites in the 1990s further confirmed what the physicists Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson had detected in 1964 - the crackle of microwave radiation that is the afterglow of the Big Bang.
In 1992, scientists used satellite data from the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) to announce that they had evidence of temperature fluctuations in the early Universe that had led to the creation of gravity, allowing matter to clump together and form galaxies, stars and planets.
Before, Guth explained,
But, he adds,
The data made a connection
between the beginning of light
13 billion years ago
and the origin of matter...
Guth remembers that the COBE's,
David Kaiser, also an MIT physicist who collaborates with Guth, notes how special that moment was back in 1992, when Kaiser was a senior at Dartmouth College and the faculty raised a Champagne toast.
At a lecture at Vassar College in 2016, the Nobel Prize winner John Mather, who led the mission, told the audience (myself included!) that, when the COBE image was revealed, it received a standing ovation, cheers and tears.
in the temperature of light
in a very young Universe.
Courtesy ESA, NASA, JPL-Caltech
and the WMAP mission
The above images display minute fluctuations in the temperature of light from when the Universe was very young.
The patterns of slightly hotter (in yellow or orange) and slightly cooler (slightly blue or green) temperatures give evidence to cosmic inflation.
The COBE (top left) was just the beginning of cosmology as a 'precision science'.
Data from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), launched in 2001 (top right), and the Planck satellite, launched in 2009 (bottom), let astrophysicists describe shape, density, size and rate of expansion of the Universe in ever-increasing detail.
The profound effects of these data extended beyond the physics community because they helped make a connection between the beginning of light about 13 billion years ago and the origin of matter, the stuff not only of superclusters of galaxies, but of human DNA, a butterfly's wing, a blue whale...
Cosmic inflation links the unfathomably small and swift with the magnificently grand and long-lasting.
The bubbling quantum world only a trillionth of a second old scales to the cobwebs of galactic superstructures that developed over billions of years.
Reconciling the physical mechanics of two worlds - the quantum and the cosmological - could unlock answers to the future of the Universe and life on worlds beyond Earth.
As recently as 1992, although Earthlings could see the myriad stars that pricked the night sky and had long dreamed about other worlds beyond Earth, astronomers had not yet confirmed if our Sun was unique in hosting planets.
But, as of February 2023, astronomers had detected 5,250 exoplanets, mostly through the Kepler space telescope and the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).
These telescopes use the transit method, in which an exoplanet crossing the face of its host star causes that star to dim.
Astronomers calculate the planet's diameter, orbital period and temperature - characteristics to evaluate a planet's Earthliness.
As a graduate student in the 1990s, the exoplanet hunter Sara Seager at MIT pioneered a technique to study atmospheres of planets as they transited and were backlit by their star.
One goal of JWST is to home in on these atmospheres for potential bio-signatures.
This process is far from straightforward. Even in our own solar system, the methane on Mars is not a bio-signature; we haven't linked ingredients of life to an actual detection of life.
This summer, Seager's team will use the JWST to observe TRAPPIST-1, a system 40 light-years away.
If the astronomers get incredibly lucky, they could speculatively use the JWST's spectrometer (a device that separates light into distinct wavelengths to determine the atmosphere's chemicals) to observe the transits, establish the existence of an atmosphere, and infer extant water vapor.
The JWST could offer tantalizing hints to life beyond Earth.
With the next instrument, scientists might be able to walk through.
The variety of detections from outer-space telescopes has prompted astronomers to imagine unfamiliar combinations of alien suns and exoplanets where life could be otherwise.
The JWST promises to spark at least as many questions about cosmological richness as it attempts to answer.
The astrobiologist Sara Walker at Arizona State University told me:
The JWST will study exoplanetary atmospheres that could be similar in composition to Earth's (mostly nitrogen and oxygen) but that would be scant evidence for living processes.
There may be
alternative pathways for exoplanets
to have developed life,
without liquid water...
Instead, for Walker, JWST is an instrument that will set the stage for re-perceiving a deeply complex process that results in what we now call life.
Using Earth as a foil for the extraterrestrial, Walker says:
Successor instruments might go beyond mere spectra to be able to detect causal structures of living processes.
Penny Boston, the former director of NASA's Astrobiology Institute, came to the concept of 'weird life' - life as we don't yet know it - through her work in caves.
Bacteria, archaea, fungi, yeast and,
These eclectic ecosystems suggest that there may be alternative pathways for exoplanets to have developed life, including ones without liquid water as a solvent.
The JWST data on exoplanetary atmospheres and planet formation, complementary to, or divergent from, Earth's pathway, could yield a generalized theory of life.
The meaningfulness of JWST data go beyond what new insights might be gained from the images alone.
Extended external 'sensibility' leads to new modes of human self-perception as intelligent, technological, self-conscious Earthlings that are imbricated with, and contributors to, our planet's 'acquired memory'.
Leaping from the Moon, our solar system, the Milky Way, to secret pockets of outer space, I have told a story of an expanding universe of knowledge shaded by empirical, social and philosophical reformations.
Galileo saw far-flung moons twirling and twinkling around Jupiter, further disrupting ancient cosmologies that placed Earth at the centre of all things. Leavitt's creation of a cosmic yardstick aided Hubble to evince the vastness of outer space.
And astronomers' use of the Hubble Telescope unveiled unsettling mysteries about the long future of the cosmos.
Last summer, the JWST alighted 1 million miles away from Earth. Astronomers held their breath as NASA engineers sent commands to the telescope to unfurl its tennis court-sized sunshield and puzzle together its aureate, honeycombed-shaped mirrors.
Each of the sunshield's membrane layers are as thin as a human hair.
As you read this, photons that have travelled billions of light-years are streaming onto the JWST's mirrors, extending the gaze of astronomers to just 100 million years after the Big Bang.
They will analyze this ancient light at the edge of time, perhaps to link how black holes might have helped shape galaxies, a question that the Hubble Telescope posed but left unanswered.
They tilt the JWST's mirrors to peer closely at habitable planets, perhaps like Earth - rocky, watery, lively - that extraterrestrial humans might travel to in the future.
Although Kant erroneously postulated in the mid-18th century that 'elevated classes of rational creatures' inhabited Jupiter and Saturn, his prediction that extraterrestrials exist might not be wrong.
By extending, clarifying and amplifying their ability to 'see', astronomers have stretched their sensibility to otherworldly objects.
Before and after Kant's writings, detections have shifted humans' perception of the natures of the Universe and posed further conundrums.
We might therefore compare the accumulation of knowledge not to the linear arrow of time moving teleologically but instead to scalar expansion of the Universe; here, like a balloon being filled, each point represents a centre.
Each centre point might be lensed by a novel tool of perception, like a spectrometer or prism, to see light differently and illuminate our perception of the cosmos.
Such lenses abet ever-changing theories about the stuffs and space-times on, and beyond, Earth...