The Webb of Life

Distant galaxy field. Photo by NASA

In this age of humanity seemingly coming apart at the seams, sometimes the accomplishments of humanity break through and brings us back to a state of wonder and amazement. The beginning of the parade of Webb telescope images is one of these accomplishments. I have been waiting for this telescope to go into operation for years, through all of the cost overruns and delays. I was worried that since this camera mainly “sees” in the infrared spectrum, the images it produces would not meet the expectations of the majority of those who look at the pictures. I am very pleased to say I was wrong.

Photo by NASA. Courtesy of CNN

Take these images. They represent the same object in space, as seen by a ground-based telescope, the Hubble telescope, and the Webb telescope. Note how each advance in technology is reflected in a clearer image. I can imagine this scope is going to be capable of detecting atmospheres of planets as they transit their star from our perspective. To me, that is an amazing feat. I can only hope the stories will soon be about atmospheres with water vapor, and the gas representing life – free oxygen. I for one would consider a positive detection of an atmosphere with oxygen as a positive proof of discovery of life elsewhere in the universe. Oxygen is so reactive that its presence in an atmosphere is a signal of life processes continually refreshing the content in the atmosphere. Once its presence is confirmed, then the only question will be how many of these types of planets across the universe exist.

The Webb telescope is an amazing accomplishment. I read that 344 separate steps had to be done perfectly in order for the telescope to meet its objectives and be capable of exploration in deep space. The odds of all of those 344 steps being done properly is infinitesimal – yet this did happen. When someone wants to tell you the Federal Government is incapable of doing anything right, point them to the success of the Webb telescope in order to plant a seed of doubt in their mind.

Dansing Galaxies. Photo by NASA and CNN

What will happen from this point forward? A lot of serious science, I am sure. Taking images from the early days of this universe surely will help inform us of our history. Nothing will convince the flat-earthers, or the religious fundamentalists who insist upon a young earth consistent with their literal interpretation of the Bible. But for those of us who have eyes, and a mind that is open, this telescope will provide incredible images. The stories that will be written based upon these observations will allow all of us to marvel at the variety of solar systems in the universe, and just might provide confirmation of the existence of life on other planets. As they say, that may be a game-changer.

3 thoughts on “The Webb of Life”

  1. Hey Clock,
    Illuminating essay as usual! I share your excitement about the Webb project – it is truly a momentous scientific achievement in a world in need of those. Thanks for the uplifting spirit of the narrative, and for the nice triptych of images of the Carina Nebula – worth three thousand words!
    I was struck by your point about the presence of oxygen in the atmosphere of a planet being a dispositive sign of life. Such a discovery would surely be strong evidence of the presence of life “as we know it”; but we should be open to other possibilities, as suggested by this article:
    https://www.theverge.com/2018/1/24/16922730/alien-life-exoplanets-atmospheres-carbon-dioxide-methane-oxygen
    which has a link to study in Science Advances that is worth a look.
    Hopefully the Webb telescope will find sufficient evidence of life around our celestial neighborhood that will satisfy any but the most soulless religionists that WE ARE NOT ALONE! Truly, that would be a “game changer” in terms of our developing human consciousness.

    In an unrelated matter, I see that Joe Manchin has partially redeemed himself in respect of trying to move the country forward (instead of backward) in its energy policy, tax policy, etc. Bravo. Moreover, I’m feeling pretty good about the Democrats chances of holding the Senate this year. Thinks are looking up!

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  2. Jay, always appreciate your comments. Yes, I agree that life can exist without free oxygen in the atmosphere, but I would argue that complex life requires oxygen, since reactions involving oxygen release the most energy. And when you get to the ADP – ATP reaction deep within cells, the waste product is CO2. So you do need other gases to signal complex life. I think oxygen would be the largest fraction in the atmosphere outside of more inert gases. I also remember the speculative works from Sci-Fi writers, using sulfur as an analogue for oxygen, since you can come up with similar reactions.

    As for Joe M., he is our cross to bear. I’ve almost given up dealing with politics in this state. Joe looks like a paragon of virtue when compared to our deep red legislators, working on systematically stripping away all vestiges of women’s rights. It is a strange world we live in.

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