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  • Writer's pictureBill Stauffer

Gratitude Friday 7-22-22 – The Webb of Time & Space

This gratitude Friday, I am reflecting on our desire to explore. Our drive to want to know what is over the horizon, under the water and beyond the blue sky. We are innately curious. Curiosity has evolutionary utility as understanding our environment is key to survival. Thousands of years ago we looked up into the night sky and realized that we can learn important things from the stars. They still teach us. I am grateful we continue to seek to understand its vast lessons.

Around five thousand years ago in northern Scotland, inhabitants made clocks out of stone to tell the passing of the seasons. I have had the opportunity to visit two of them. Callanish on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides is a multifunctional henge and Maes Howe on Mainland Orkney which observes the winter equinox. We used them to observe the seasons, an important ability for an agrarian society. Around the same time, the ancient sailors of Crete were using the stars to navigate beyond the sight of land and expand trade. Civilization was built with the stars.

I keep an eye on the calendar to observe meteor showers or other celestial events when they occur if the weather cooperates. One of my favorite astronomy experiences was when Julie and I went to Acadia in Maine a number of years back. Our visit coincided with the Acadia Night Sky Festival which this year is scheduled for mid-September. The weather was perfect and there was almost no light pollution. All of these volunteers had their astronomy equipment set up in the parking lot just off the beach. We went to each one and saw amazing things. The rings of Jupiter, Mizar and Alcor in the bend of the Big Dipper and the Andromeda Galaxy which is a relatively close at 2.5 Million light years and the farthest object that humans can see with the naked eye. At one point, the assembled crowd gasped as a huge shooting star illuminated the beach as it streaked overhead. The evening was awe-inspiring. That night, we could really appreciate how small we are. Humans are one small species inhabiting a rock together in a vast expanse of the universe.

Just prior to my life horizon in 1957, the space race started. The USSR launched a basketball sized satellite. Sputnik emitted radio pulses and traveled at 18,000 MPH. Americans looked up and saw that the Russians were over our heads. They had a capability we did not have, and we were afraid. The space race took off. The first man on the moon, the first spacewalk, the first vehicle to land on another planet and the first space telescope are all relatively recent events that came out of the space program. Much of its early progress occurred when James Webb was at the helm of NASA.

As a result of the efforts of scientists and engineers, our understanding of our universe is increasing exponentially. This article identifies a myriad of ways that our understanding of the Universe has changed in the last five years. Each new insight brings new questions. I do not pretend to understand even a fraction of it all. That space and time are not linear hurts my head. I am grateful that really smart people have devoted their lives to understanding these things. What they learn may help us with much else, just like our efforts to get to the moon led to huge technological advancements that gave us. I always thought that Tang, Teflon and Velcro came from the space race, but recently learned that is an urban myth. We did get integrated circuits, digital fly by wire and freeze-dried food out of moon shots. More importantly, we saw ourselves as a “can do” nation. A lost narrative of who and what we are as a people. We need such a narrative now.

On another level, this discipline of science is answering the big questions of how did it get here. A question we have asked as long as we have existed. I was excited when the Hubble telescope was launched in 1990. It is old hardware, built with 1970s technology. Launch was delayed for several years due to tragedy in the Shuttle program. 32 years later, Hubble is still teaching us despite its age. Putting a telescope in space was a huge engineering challenge. Hubble allowed us to look father out and earlier in time than anything else in human history. It has a laundry list of discoveries. We are answering questions in our time that we had not even dared to dream of a lifetime earlier. We are just getting started.

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was launched last winter. Engineers then unfolded and powered up the most powerful telescope ever built. The JWST is an international project between NASA, the ESA and the CSA. There are so many things that make the JWST special, one of them is that it sits at Lagrange Point 2 or L2. Hubble is in low earth orbit at 340 miles above earth, The JWST is at L2, one million miles away from us in orbit around the sun. It is in line with the earth to protect it from light and heat. Getting it powered up was like setting up a big tent out in the remote woods using remote control to do it. It took months to do. We can still accomplish big things when we work together!

We are all seeing amazing images. Because light takes time to travel, we are looking back in time farther than we have ever been able to see before, and the sky is filled with galaxies in every field of view. There is so much out there! We are so small, and our differences with each other even smaller in comparison to the vastness around us. I am grateful for all the science nerds who gave us the JWST. I am grateful we still explore new frontiers. I am grateful for the reminder of all we have in common when I contemplate what lies beyond us. What are you grateful for today?

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