Haphazard by starlight

After decades of planning and a tense morning, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) launched on Christmas Day and began its journey to a point in space from which it can look out on, and reflect back to us, light from unimaginably far away in time.  Its long journey into the cold is the culmination of an extraordinary coming together of scientists and engineers, an act of collective creative imagination.  It is a gamble for sure, but it’s a gamble for knowledge, a bet on exploration into what we can do together, and on what we might discover.

The chance to see the very birth of stars, planets and solar systems is remarkable given that it is less than 500 years since Copernicus and Galileo rewrote our place in the universe and less than a century since we first put a human-made object into space.  And it is easy to concentrate on the astonishing technical skill involved, and to lose track of a deeper meaning.

This is my attempt to find words, some of them very old, to express a sense of profound wonder.

There have been other stories of space related exploration this year, notably the excursions by billionaires and celebrities into the upper atmosphere, which have been justified by reference to our need as humanity to step beyond the earth.  The irony of using finite resources to escape from a world of diminishing resource has not been lost. 

And with some prescience, the wonderful poet J. O. Morgan wrote his sequence of poems, The Martian’s Regress, imagining a Martian returning to an earth destroyed then abandoned by humanity; which has now destroyed Mars too.[1]  A recurrent nightmare of environmental destruction and technological overreach has never been more sharply described:

We had the filters running day and night
Everything was pure by the time it got through to us
All this had been foreseen, such cycles are predictable
And we took the impetus, we rushed up to meet it
The planet may have been going downhill
But we were forging ahead, we were leading the way
We might have stayed for several millennia more
But there’s much to be said for a change of scenery.

At the beginning of her great work The Human Condition, Hannah Arendt reflected on the accelerating space race with the launch of Sputnik 1:

“Should the emancipation and secularization of the modern age, which began with a turning-away, not necessarily from God, but from a god who was the Father of men in heaven, end with an even more fateful repudiation of an Earth who was the Mother of all living creatures under the sky?”

Space exploration for the sake of human self-aggrandisement is not a new thought, or the province of the mega-rich.  The UK has an ambitious national space strategy, as do other countries.  We rely on this technology for much that we consider essential (communications and defence for example), but it ought not to be an ethics-free zone.  It is extraordinary that we litter our skies with ever more debris, and we have already changed the face of the heavens with satellites.  A right to dark skies, as UNESCO has defined it, is not just about light pollution on earth; the impact of human-made objects is a growing cause for concern.[2]  Our abuse of the oceans and land, bewailed but not repudiated, should be not a template but a lesson in our responsibility to our solar system.

In Arendt’s argument:

“The earth is the very quintessence of the human condition, and earthly natures, for all we know, may be unique in the universe in providing human beings with a habitat in which they can move without effort and without artifice…This future man, whom the scientists tell us they will produce in no more than a hundred years, seems to be possessed by a rebellion against human existence as it has been given, a free gift from nowhere (secularly speaking), which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself.  There is no reason to doubt our abilities to accomplish such an exchange, just as there is no reason to doubt our present ability to destroy all organic life on earth.  The question is only whether we wish to use our new scientific and technical knowledge in tis direction, and this question cannot be decided by scientific means; it is a political question of the first order and therefore can hardly be left to the decision of professional scientists or professional politicians.”

Arendt is not against science; indeed part of her point is that our current desire to know our place in the universe has roots as deep as philosophy itself.  She celebrates our capacity to create things – works and deeds and words.  But she appeals passionately against thoughtlessness – we must “think what we are doing.”

In contrast to space tourism, the James Webb Space Telescope seems to me to occupy an intellectual niche of potential thoughtfulness.  It is of course open to critique, and if in a few days’ time something goes wrong, we will hear that criticism mount, but I see it as a testament to a desire to know more than a will to own, and that makes this a different kind of adventure.

T. S. Eliot wrote

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.[3]

The James Webb telescope may take us closer to that stillness than we have ever been before. 

The results will come in the language of science, and are the product of a history of skills and ingenuity.  This is part of Arendt’s long history of how humans came to the astonishing ability to see themselves in and apart from the universe; “man’s ability to take this cosmic universal standpoint without changing his location” at a time when “men would have to live under the earth’s conditions and at the same time be able to look upon and act on her from a point outside.”  For Arendt, writing just shy of a decade before the first colour images of earth from space, this was part of the replacement by doubt of the sense of wonder.  But I think that we now risk the language of science superpowerdom supplanting the recovery of wonder.[4] 

Today’s science is tomorrow’s history, as Arendt shows.  The story of the James Webb Space Telescope (even down to its desperately unimaginative name) is already being told, and it is a story of ingenuity and perhaps more importantly collaboration – according to NASA “Thousands of scientists, engineers, and technicians from 14 countries, 29 U.S. states, and Washington, D.C. contributed to build, test, and integrate Webb. In total, 258 distinct companies, agencies, and universities participated – 142 from the United States, 104 from 12 European nations, and 12 from Canada.”[5]  

But it is also about the emergence of new myths.  The origin of the universe will be conceptualized more compellingly by writers and artists than in scientific papers.  The birth of galaxies will be animated and imagined, and integrated into our own understanding of our place in the world both as observers and as participants.  Bede tells the story that an advisor to King Edwin of Northumbria in 627 AD described human life as:

“like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting-hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day… This sparrow flies swiftly in through one door of the hall, and out through another. While he is inside, he is safe from the winter storms; but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. Even so, man appears on earth for a little while; but of what went before this life or of what follows, we know nothing.”[6]

The whole span of human history is less than a sparrow’s flight in the unimaginable length of universal time, yet we will come to a know a little more of its beginnings and possible futures; and even in the face of such immensity, the sparrow’s flight of those we love and those we lose retain a vital and not a selfish importance, because they are our way of finding a home.  And once we recognise that our home is this improbable tiny blue planet, it becomes the more wondrous.  As Carl Sagan, one of the greatest exponents of the wonders of science, puts it

“everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam… this distant image of our tiny world… underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”[7]

Earth, from Voyager 1.

So JWST is not just about our science, it’s about our story – and that story will and should become our myth.  Myths are, beyond all, complex stories which bind our small selves and our widest context.  Wendy Doniger uses a metaphor which is highly appropriate here; for her myth is the human microscope and the cosmic telescope. 

“The myth allows us to look through both ends of the human kaleidoscope at once, simultaneously to view the personal, the details that makes our lives precious to us, through the microscope of our own eye and … to view the vast panorama that dwarfs even the grand enterprises of great powers.”[8]

JWST is just such a story.  The cost may seem high – equivalent to a century of funding for the Arts and Humanities Research Council! – but the value of wonder is beyond measure.  As Arendt showed, to lose wonder is to gain merely doubt – a very poor trade. 

Here’s one new story.  I find it immensely moving that JWST set out to discover the oldest light on the day that, in an enduring myth, light came into the world.  John’s Gospel weaves a complex and rich set of Hebrew and Gnostic imagery into its prologue:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it…. The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.”

John the Evangelist has Genesis in mind of course

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness.”

And the notion of the early creation of light is wonderfully old and perennially meaningful.  The Sumerian epic, the Enuma Elish, one of the oldest stories we have, tells of the creation of light.  A Greek author in the first century AD quoted ‘let there be light’ from Genesis as an instance of the sublime in writing.  Dante makes his ascent into Paradise, guided by Beatrice, a voyage into light, drawing on medieval optics and setting an agenda for art for centuries to come.[9]  And as JWST peers back towards a time before the stars were made, I think of Milton intuiting from his own blindness the emergence of light before the sun was created:[10]

“Let there be light; said God, and forthwith light
Ethereal, first of things, quintessence pure,
Sprung from the deep, and from her native east
To journey through the airy gloom began,
Spher’d in a radiant cloud, for yet the sun
Was not; she in a cloudy tabernacle
Sojourn’d the while. God saw the light was good;
And light from darkness by the hemisphere
Divided: light the day, and darkness night
He nam’d. Thus was the first day even and morn.”

Hunting for the light ethereal, for the stillness between two waves, listening for the echoes of time before time, this is truly a human endeavour of wonderment.  And if the story is told well, it will lead us to a better and more humble understanding of ourselves, not the world of science superpowers, but something more lasting and more profound.

U. A. Fanthorpe wrote a lovely poem called BC/AD about the strangeness of a moment in time which changes everything.  Set within the banality of politics and the realities of oppression, a birth, a shifting in perception. It will surely be the unexpected that will catch our breath in JWST’s long solitary sojourn in the cold darkness, and bring us light.

“This was the moment when Before
Turned into After, and the future’s
Uninvented timekeepers presented arms.
This was the moment when nothing
Happened. Only dull peace
Sprawled boringly over the earth.
This was the moment when even energetic Romans
Could find nothing better to do
Than counting heads in remote provinces.
And this was the moment
When a few farm workers and three
Members of an obscure Persian sect
Walked haphazard by starlight straight
Into the kingdom of heaven.”

[1] J. O. Morgan, The Martian’s Regress, Cape Poetry, 2020.

[2] A recent article in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society Letters addresses this; https://www.darksky.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/Kocifaj-et-al-2021.pdf; the earlier UNESCO report is https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000246131.

[3] T. S. Eliot, Little Gidding, from Four Quartets.

[4] The political quotes at https://www.ukri.org/news/james-webb-space-telescope-launch-celebrated-by-uk/ pull the focus back to earth every time, from the universe and its galaxies to the UK, its jobs and its strategic position. They look inward not outward.  In the season 2 episode, “Galileo” of the TV series, The West Wing, the team prepare the President’s speech to schoolchildren waiting to see an unmanned vessel land on Mars.  The speech takes us from the eyes of those watching, to the spacecraft to Mars.  As Bartlett remarks of Sam Seaborn’s lines, ‘He said it right.’   

[5] https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2020/nasa-s-webb-telescope-is-an-international-endeavor.  JWST blasted off from French Guiana off the coast of South America (a place with its own interesting history of colonial appropriation, a warning perhaps against thoughtless approaches to the unknown).

[6] Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica 2.13; Old English translation at https://aclerkofoxford.blogspot.com/2012/05/venerable-bede-and-blink-of-eye.html.

[7] Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot. United States: Random House USA Inc. 1997, 6-7.

[8] Wendy Doniger, The Implied Spider: Politics and Theology in Myth, Columbia 1998, 25.

[9] See now Martin Kemp, Visions of Heaven: Dante and the Art of Divine Light, Lund Humphries 2021.

[10] John Milton, Paradise Lost, 7.243-52.


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