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The Stars and Us

The universe is almost incomprehensively infinite and thanks to the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and the incredible team of scientists behind it, we have the honor and privilege of seeing farther than we ever have before. If you’d like to catch up on the news around it, you can read about it here. Here is the image of Webb’s First Deep Field aka galaxy cluster SMACS 0723.

What I’d like to talk about for a moment is how these images can impact our perspective.

If you held a grain of sand up to the sky at arm’s length, that is how much area is covered in this image.

All those stars…

All those galaxies…

All that history…

…Held in what we see with the naked eye in one grain of sand.

Now imagine what we would see if we could view the entire sky with the same vividness and detail as we now have of that one speck.

Keep in mind that each of those galaxies could have solar systems as big as ours or even bigger.

Each one containing worlds we may never know.

Let that image sink in for a moment and think about how much is out there. How do you feel when you think about that?

I can bet that I share the same sentiments as many of you when I say that all of this fills me with a great sense of awe and humility. I feel awe for a few different reasons.

  1. Awe for all the knowledge, all the skills, all the efforts, all the blood, sweat and tears that would have gone into developing the technology to bring all these images to us in the first place. Everyone involved in the process should be immensely proud of themselves.

  2. Awe at sight of something that previously could not be seen. It’s like opening a treasure chest in space. We have a glimpse of the universe we never before would have been able to see in so much detail.

  3. Awe at the vastness of it all. The vastness of the universe is something I have contemplated numerous times and it feels as though the JWST literally captured my imagination and made it visible. We all knew that the universe is vast, but we often think of it as an idea to be visualized. Now we have a photograph that shows us just how vast it really is.

  4. Awe at the history. Because of the speed that light travels, some of what we are seeing could be from as far back as 13.7 billion years ago. We could be looking at stars that don’t exist as stars anymore (i.e. Black holes) that we’re only able to see now because that’s how long it took for their light to reach the JWST.

  5. Awe for the learning potential. Examining individual elements from the JWST photos can help us get a deeper understanding of so many things such as what exactly happens when a new star is formed, the history of our universe, the effects of the expansion of our universe and so much more.

  6. Awe for the possibilities. What was captured was just one tiny point in our sky. I can’t wait to see what more they uncover as they point their lenses to other directions in space. Like the universe itself, the possibilities are endless.

I also feel very humbled thinking of my place in this expansive universe. It helps to put our experiences, our challenges, our differences, our quarrels, our trivialities into perspective. As we live our day to day lives, it’s easy to fall into the trap of getting consumed by our routines, our problems and even our ambitions.

These glimpses into space are a reminder that there is so much more out there and that once in a while, we need to take a step back, appreciate the bigger picture we’re in and reevaluate what is really important to us.

Thinking of these things can have the tendency to make us feel small and insignificant. There is a sense of wonder in feeling small, but we are not insignificant.

We do not only reside in this universe, we are connected to it, we are a part of it. Heck, we are even made of stardust ourselves. As Planetary Scientist and Stardust expert Dr. Ashley King explains,

Nearly all the elements in the human body were made in a star and many have come through several supernovas.

So when you look at these stars, know that they are a part of you and your history.


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