Journeying deeper into time and space

Journeying deeper into time and space

Good old Shakespeare put it all in perspective hundreds of years ago. 'Imagination bodies forth', said he, 'the forms of things unknown.'  

And judging by what the James Webb Space Telescope has been sending back to Earth from deep space, human imagination has now penetrated time and space in ways never before conceived of in the mind of man. Imagination has touched reality. That is the truth shining through the images of the galaxies, of the distant stars, of that closeness to the moment when the Big Bang occurred, which the Webb Telescope has been transmitting back to Earth. 

That the Webb has travelled so far out into space, that we now know for a certainty that the universe is 13.8 billion years old is a tribute to human ingenuity, an acknowledgment that it is now possible for humankind to go into a more sustained search for intelligent life in the landscape of the universe. The universe, of course, has constantly been expanding. Now that the Webb has sent back images dating back over four billion years --- and since it will remain operational for the next two decades --- we can reasonably expect it to approach that cusp of the moment where the 13.8 billion years in time happen to be. 

After that comes the Big Bang, that earliest of moments when the process of Creation got underway. This is absolutely amazing, this sheer success on the part of humankind to literally travel back in time and be witness to the way the planets and the galaxies began to take shape. Space science is pushing new frontiers; and it may well be that in the years and decades ahead our collective imagination will reach out to solve even more of the mystery behind the cosmos, the galaxies, the stars we have so long studied in our search for the meaning of existence. 

It is only proper that the Webb Telescope should be sending our way those glittering lights from billions of years ago in the very month when we recall Neil Armstrong and Edwin Aldrin's walk on the moon. For our generation --- and we were in our teens in July 1969 --- that voice flowing all the way to Earth from the Sea of Tranquillity changed our perceptions of life forever. Things would never be the same, we told ourselves. On the Voice of America, the human voice from the moon crackled, and informed us, "The Eagle has landed." 

Suddenly our fascination for poetry, that which had for centuries celebrated the lunar orb, wrapped itself around the beautiful prose that was being written out there by Armstrong and Aldrin. Yes, it was indeed a small step for a man but a giant leap for mankind. It was that defining moment when we remembered John Fitzgerald Kennedy's audacious promise to send a man to the moon and have him return to Earth, all in the space of the 1960s.  

We missed Kennedy as the Apollo-11 astronauts walked on the moon. His family noted that he was up there among the stars, celebrating the fulfilment of his dream. In a moment of supreme irony, it remained for President Richard Nixon, the man Kennedy had defeated at the 1960 election, to welcome the Apollo-11 astronauts back home. 

Today, as we pore over the distant images of an infrared universe, it is the beginnings of the space age we recall in this twilight of our lives. The Soviet Union's Sputnik spacecraft, the journeys into orbit around Earth by Alan Shepard and John Glenn, the pioneering leaps away from the planet by Yuri Gagarin and Valentina Tereshkova are stories which come back to revive in us the old idealism as we observed the race for the conquest of space by Moscow and Washington. The Cosmic Cliffs spotted in the Carina Nebula, 7,600 light-years away from Earth, by the Webb are a culmination, up to this point, of all those early forays into space. 

And, yes, there has been tragedy along the way. Three American astronauts perished in their spacecraft on the ground in 1967; James Lovell and his fellow astronauts on Apollo-13 were seemingly doomed on their way to the moon in 1970 but managed to limp back home in their damaged spacecraft. Years later, the Challenger shuttle exploded seconds after lift-off, leaving no trace of those who had only moments earlier been given a warm send-off by the world. The school teacher Christa McAuliffe was among the dead. "I touch the future. I teach", she had once defined herself. And now her search for a different future had killed her present. 

We examine in minute detail the group of five galaxies known as Stephan's Quintet, another precious gift from the Webb. Four of these galaxies are engaged in a cosmic dance, as we are informed, around one another, with the dire possibility of their colliding someday. It is a fear we can identify with, for back on Christmas Eve 1968 we experienced fear as Apollo-8, the first manned spacecraft in the vicinity of the moon, went behind it, to its dark side, leaving all of us wondering if it would re-emerge from that unknown territory. What if it did not? What if some cosmic force made it drift off into distances away from the moon, leaving not a trace of the astronauts trapped in it? 

But then, to our relief, Apollo-8 emerged from behind the moon. Bliss it was to hear the three astronauts --- Borman, Lovell and Anders --- take turns reading from Genesis as Earth rose in all its beauty before them. It was splendour associated with Creation. It was Christmas Eve --- and the astronauts remembered God's munificence. We prayed on Earth. 

As the James Webb Space Telescope carries on from where the Hubble Telescope left off, we wait for all those new moments of discovery which will come our way. Somewhere out there, millions of miles away, Voyager-1 and Voyager-2, launched in 1977, continue their odyssey into deeper territory in search of life elsewhere. Science has taken us to cosmic regions beyond our wildest imagination. 

Our galaxy, as Jo Dunkley informs us, is a place where light would require 100,000 years to cross from one side of the disc of stars to the other and about 1,000 years from top to bottom. The Webb has now given us the story of a multiplicity of galaxies on a platter.  

As we observe the low hanging stars in our villages on moonless nights, we know this human journey into deeper time and space will be relentless. And yet we know too that the sun around which we move will run out of energy in four or five billion years, to eventually shrivel up as a white dwarf. The Milky Way will collide with Andromeda, to create a new elliptical galaxy. 

But all of that is in the future. At this point of time, we wonder about our solar system. And on a broader scale we reflect on the reams of knowledge, of the birth of the universe, that have begun to flow our way from the Webb.  

It is that moment in time and space when scientific inquiry and religious belief come together in charming union to re-energise our faith in the power of human enterprise. Divinity is up there somewhere. 


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