The Webb Telescope and three reasons for awe, wonder, and hope
Updated: Jul 21
Sifting through the depressing fire hose that is today's news cycle, once in a while you come up with a gem that makes it all seem worthwhile. The largest and most powerful telescope ever launched into space, the Webb Telescope, began sending us back infrared photographs with details never before seen or imagined. The photo above covers a tiny portion of the sky- if you were to pick up a grain of sand and hold it at arm's length, that is the fraction of sky that's pictured in the first photo sent back by the Webb. In in that minute fraction are too many galaxies to count.
When I look up at my suburban sky, I see mostly black, peppered by the moon, a couple of planets, and the brightest constellations. But mostly black. Looking at this photograph, it's clear that there is so much more out there that I can't see. The Webb telescope found planets with water, new galaxies, and stars that we never knew existed. Everything that we thought we knew about space just expanded beyond our capabilities. We've all been stuck on Mount Stupid, that illusory peak where we think that we know enough, but the Dunning-Kruger effect proves that our ignorance knows no bounds.
This discovery rivals Galileo's realization that Earth was not the center of the universe, for which he suffered house arrest for the rest of his life. Not only is Earth not the center, but it isn't even that significant. It's like a grain of sand in a vast desert. But rather than despair, this discovery is one that brings with it great hope. It shows that mankind is getting closer and closer to important knowledge about the nature of the universe, and life itself, and this progress is showing itself with promising developments right here on Earth that escape us.
In addition to the Webb photos, developments were announced earlier this year that could totally transform the way we deal with cancer. The new Galleri blood test by GRAIL is spreading to medical systems everywhere, and this one blood test can now catch up to 50 types of cancer in the early stages, many of which had never before been detectable. The test costs $949 and isn't covered by insurance, but will be a game changer in dealing with cancer early enough to save countless lives. The medical field is full of discoveries that are coming in the next decade that will extend lifespans and include the quality of life.
These discoveries include the life-saving Covid 19 mRNA vaccines, the Human Genome Project that will detect thousands of diseases at the genetic level and help with treatments, brain mapping that will aid in the treatment of Alzheimer's, mental illnesses, and substance abuse, new treatments for diabetes and high cholesterol, and much more. Our main limitations in the medical field remain our crazy, inefficient, and unfair system that locks out huge chunks of the population. Fix that, and the sky's the limit.
The third reason for hope is the quiet work being done to transform our world in time to avoid the worst effects of climate change. Few people know about the European nuclear fusion projects JET and ITER, but fusion is the most promising energy source that can replace fossil fuels with the fewest repercussions. Progress is being made in solar, wind, and battery technology, but fusion would be transformational if humans could make it commercially viable. There are also currently dozens of projects at work to figure out the important technology of carbon capture. Removing carbon from the atmosphere at a faster pace than we keep dumping it up there is our best hope for keeping temperatures livable, at least until we find a way to transform our energy system with alternative carbon-free fuels. Finding a way to remove carbon from the air and bury it in the ground economically and in quantity is the challenge that many are working on.
The past few decades have seen great strides in innovation, but they've been accompanied by a pathological attachment to the past. We cling to old technologies, old movie stars and franchises, old politicians and outdated ideas. At some point in the 21st century, once the baby boomers have given up their iron grip on society, we will hopefully move forward again and get past the division and negativity that grips us today.
The news cycle the past few years has seemed relentlessly negative and depressing. Part of that is humanity's cruel fascination with dumpster fires and train wrecks, aka negativity bias. And there's no doubt that we're in a pickle today in a lot of ways. But thank goodness for science, curiosity, and the people who don't like being told it can't be done. Maybe as the Webb Telescope shows us more and more awe-inspiring photos, we will put aside our petty tribal prejudices and work towards the progress that we all deserve.