On August 20, around 8 or 9p.m., look due south just above the horizon. If you’re lucky enough to have a dark, cloudless night you might be able to see the haziness of the Milky Way.
If August slips by and you suddenly find yourself in September, just look low in the southwest. In the middle of that haziness is the center of our galaxy and, at the heart of that is a black hole intent on devouring everything – stars included – that crosses what astronomers call the Event Horizon.
What happens then? It is believed that the black hole will gravitationally crush whatever it consumes into the smallest of subatomic particles and, eventually into a “singularity” that has no depth or width. Nothing escapes.
So, end of story, right? Not at all. Life is not just about reaching a destination. The journey to that destination should be at least of equal value. What happens in the time between the birth of stars like the Sun and their demise within a black hole or after their hydrogen and helium are depleted and they become ghosts of what they were? I believe that this is worth trying to understand. It’s like reading a biography. Our own. But more on that later.
We now have a tool that will provide much more insight into the unfolding of the universe. I’m writing this on the day before NASA (and the European and Canadian space agencies) unveils the first batch of images and data from the James Webb Space Telescope. The press releases have stated that we will be astonished. I’m ready.
I’m ready because I have come to believe that our ability to find solutions for the hardships we are facing on Earth will ultimately be found through a greater understanding and appreciation for the story of the universe. If Webb can show us where and how everything began, and make sense of the journey that has brought us to this time and place, maybe we’ll take more pride in preserving what we have. Call it wishful thinking, but it might just be our best shot.
It’s now a day later, and I’ve seen Webb’s initial work: the light from a 13 billion-year-old galaxy, a star nursery within a dazzling nebula, a dying star’s final display of greatness, and the telltale signs that the atmosphere of a far distant planet contains water molecules. The photos and displays are fantastic. Even better, though, are the faces of the people from the agencies that have been instrumental in building, placing and operating Webb. They may be astonished at their success but, more than that, they exude unabashed joy, for they know that they are the means by which all of us will be enlightened.
Toward the end of NASA’s live presentation, its administrator quoted the late astronomer Carl Sagan. As much as anyone, Sagan pioneered the concept that astronomy wasn’t just for geniuses. He made it accessible to those who, without technical degrees and expensive equipment, just wanted a little more information about the beauty they beheld in the night sky. Sagan said, “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.” In the very near future we’re going to know a lot more, and it will all be incredible.
By far, though, the most incredible thing – one that we’ve known for some time – is that we are made of the atoms and molecules created and expelled by stars as they go through their life cycles. We would not exist without the stars.
As I’ve noted, there are places in the universe that serve as star nurseries. Individually, though, each star is its own nursery. Scientists may have created new elements with modern technology, but the vast majority of every bit of matter around and within us comes from stars. The Webb telescope will reveal even more about this process.
The singer Joni Mitchell was right. We are, indeed, stardust. When we look at stars, we see where our own journeys began. Each of our biographies starts right there. Don’t you want to know more?