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When You’re Down, Look Up

I was taking in two distinctly different sources of information simultaneously Tuesday afternoon.

The TV was tuned to the January 6 committee hearings, while on my computer I was pulling up the remarkable images from NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.

It was a challenge to reconcile the contrast.

On one hand, the destructive events of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol are being laid bare. These are examples of extremely bad behavior by our species. Future generations will look back at the events of that day as what happens when good judgment and devotion to something greater than oneself is capsized by violence and lies.

Theoretically, and hopefully, we become more civilized with the passage of time. The positive characteristics that define our humanity—morality, empathy, wisdom, conscience, rationality—become more dominant.

But because we are human, we sometimes revert to more primal characteristics. We pick up a stick or a rock and hit each other or break things. January 6th was a dark illustration of that primitive behavior.

But on the other hand, there are these remarkable pictures that begin to show the vastness outside our miniscule planet. “Webb’s image is approximately the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length by someone on the ground—and reveals thousands of galaxies in a tiny sliver of a vast universe,” NASA said.

The universe contains billions of galaxies, and each of those galaxies contains billions of stars. Distance is measured in light years and light travels at 186,000 miles per second. That is incomprehensible to me, but it does inspire a sense of wonder.

The telescope is so powerful that it can capture images of light from galaxies that “took billions of years to reach us,” NASA said. “We are looking back in time to within a billion years after the big bang.”

In one instance, Webb’s enormous mirror and precise instruments detected the “distinct signature of water, along with evidence of clouds and haze, in the atmosphere surrounding a hot, puffy gas giant planet orbiting a distant sun-like star.”

That sounds tantalizingly like the formula for life. Chris Holt wrote in the online publication Astronomy, “The universe might be teeming with life, or maybe we are totally alone, marooned on a lonely world in the vastness of space. The definitive answer, either way, will likely require a profound psychological and philosophical adjustment for humankind.”

The insatiable desire by explorers to push the boundaries of the known world represents one of our best virtues. The journey is as important as the destination because of the knowledge gained along the way, and that knowledge, hopefully, leads to wisdom.

Tragic events in our daily lives, our polarized politics, the Capitol insurrection, deranged mass shooters, the invasion of Ukraine, our random inhumanity, on and on, are all dispiriting. At times it can feel as though our world is spinning out of control.

However, if we can pause for a moment, look up from our world to the sky, we can marvel at what has been created and how much more there is to know.


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