The Lagoon Nebula as imaged by the Hubble Space Telescope. Image: NASA, ESA, STScI
- On July 12, NASA released four full-color images taken by the recently launched James Webb Space Telescope.
- One YouTuber shared a zoomed-out view of the Deep Field image with “we’re so small I’m going to throw up”. One journalist tweeted: “I can’t get over the structure of these. I feel broken. The telescope destroyed me.”
- The Deep Field image does not provide new information about the size or age of the universe, but it does make its vastness visible.
- Instead of 100 billion stars in one galaxy, we’re talking about a quadrillion stars – a number so big it feels like nonsense, you see why we need pictures to understand it.
- Even though life is extraordinarily rare, on rare occasions a quadrillion still seems like it should end up meaning the universe is home to more than just us.
The first image from the James Webb Space Telescope was of a tiny patch of sky, so small you could erase it if you held 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 observing time in that space reveals thousands of galaxies, some clustered together, some sweeping and swirling. Even the tiny specks in the picture are galaxies.
On July 12, NASA released four more images, showing the reach of the telescope: the spectrum of an exoplanet a thousand light-years away, which can be read by its chemical composition (and the fact that it has clouds!); the nebula of a star’s explosive death; the best ever picture of the galaxies of Stephan’s Quintet; and a close-up of the Carina Nebula, a “stellar nursery”.
This is one of those great science moments, the kind that revolutionize a field and excite the public. A mission 30 years in the making, JWST offers scientists unprecedented views of the early universe, galactic and stellar evolution, and planets around other stars in our galaxy. The White House got it right when they had the president reveal the first photo on July 11. Celebrities tweeted the photos, a flood of memes followed.
This was a whole new vocabulary of images to make sense of, but their inherent meaning was also deliciously overwhelming. A YouTuber shared a zoomed-out view that places the Deep Field in the night sky with “we’re so small I’m going to throw up.” A friend shared the Carina Nebula photo to his Instagram story with “pst hey buddy you’ll feel emotions you were pretty sure the world in its current form was permanently numbed by you.”
Scientists were hardly immune. Science journalist Shannon Stirone tweeted, “I can’t get over the structure of these. I feel broken. 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 TikTok video: “I look at this picture and think, There is no way we are alone in the universe.” Well… is it?
Practically speaking, the search for life beyond Earth is usually limited to our own galaxy, the only space where we have a chance to detect 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 does not provide new information about the size or age of the universe, but it does make its vastness visible. Instead of 100 billion stars in one galaxy, we are now talking about a quadrillion stars (a number so big it feels like nonsense, you see why we need pictures to understand it).
Even though life is extraordinarily rare, on rare occasions a quadrillion still seems like it should end up meaning the universe is home to more than just us.
This confident speculation is “sort of half science, half emotion,” astronomer Caleb Scharf, director of Columbia University’s Astrobiology Center, told me over email. All that space means more chances for life, but we don’t know the odds of life arising anywhere, even on Earth, where hindsight mistakenly makes it seem like it was a safe bet. Even with all the rich real estate in the Deep Field, Scharf said, the likelihood of life depends “acutely on the part we don’t know, the odds of life, which may be unimaginably small, and more or less cancel out the enormous number of stars and galaxies.”
Astrophysicist Katie Mack told me over Twitter, “I think it is extraordinarily unlikely that life occurred on only one planet in one solar system (among hundreds of billions) in one galaxy (among trillions), over 13.8 billion years.” Scharf said he shares that feeling, but offered a caveat: “Until we know what the probability of the emergence of life is (or how it works), we really can’t call this ‘scientific’ since it depends entirely on assumptions.” This means that you cannot extrapolate an event’s probability when you only have one example of it happening.
Abundant 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 – in 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 the light elements are not enough for worlds that could host life as we know it, or possibly planets at all. “For life as we know it to exist,” Scharf said, “built from elements like carbon, nitrogen and oxygen, the universe had to have reached a certain age where enough of those elements had been made from stars.”
But space is more than room for life. Perhaps it is limiting – or demeaning – to see these vast, cosmic structures and think, This is room for more things like me. Anthropologist Lisa Messeri, author of Location of space, told me, “When we are confronted with these fantastic, enormously scaled images, we want to try to understand—we want to tame the fantastic.” So we seek the familiar. Maybe space is just like here, but a little different, we think passively. The New York Times reported that after the July 11 event, as the press left the room, President Biden said, “I wonder what the press is like in the other places.”
Galaxies, nebulae, black holes. These incomprehensibly large and – dare I say it – alien structures become manageable when they think about life. “The sublime confronts us with this almost inconceivable inconceivable,” said Messeri, “and we are challenged to master it, to tame it, to make it comprehensible to our small human scale.” We do this by returning to the familiar scale of the planet.
The places in JWST’s first images are not places for us. But instead of seeking to fill them with familiar, earthly worlds, we can give in to the alienation and embrace the loneliness, let it transform into a new kind of awe. Messeri told me that the JWST image that made her gasp was the one from Stephan’s Quintet, the galaxies entangled in gravitational dance. “That was the extent of it,” she said, but not only that—the Deep Field shows far more galaxies, after all.
“Seeing these galaxies engaged in something – that in itself is about not being alone.” There need not be life for there to be communion. “It’s a different way of thinking about what it means to be alone that’s not a matter of biology, it’s instead a matter of geography and gravity.” Messeri called their relationship a “kind of galactic society.” But it’s a community we don’t get access to.
Scientists study for years and can understand the value of a galaxy in itself. The rest of us can be awed by the scale, and mesmerized by the beautiful images (which are not raw images, but extracted by scientists from the telescope data, made beautiful with a layer of human processing and coloring). So when we think, Why is this important? Why is this beautiful? Why does this make me feel all kinds of great things? can we take another shortcut This feels meaningful and huge because it shows that there is room for life in the universe.
But sitting with another possibility: What if we is alone? What if there is no other life at all? What is the value and meaning of all these galaxies and almost countless stars, then?
The question of life in other galaxies will probably never be truly answered, either in our lifetime or that of humanity. We may or may not find microbes on another planet. We may, with JWST or another powerful telescope, see the traces of life in an exoplanet’s atmosphere, or we may not; this kind of evidence would hardly be conclusive to anyone running around out there. We may one day determine the chances of life arising, its frequency and predictions, and we may be able to apply these principles to galaxies beyond our own.
But humans will never travel to the distant parts of the universe shown in JWST’s images, will never know them with our own eyes or feet on the ground. We can look at the images taken by our telescopic emissaries, and we can appreciate life on Earth while being awed by the cosmos. If we want aliens, the most alien kinship would be with facets of the universe that have nothing to do with life at all.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New Americaand Arizona State University which examines emerging technologies, public policy and society.