Wow. Wow. And wow again.
In the rich variety of the English language, with all its nuanced shades of meaning, there really isn’t a better word. Not for a space geek suddenly faced with the first photos from the James Webb Space Telescope.
If you haven’t seen the images yet, make the time. Right now. I mean it, I’ll still be waiting here when you come back. The rest of us can tell you: They’re just. That. Good.
When I went to college in the 1990s, the first photos came back from the recently repaired Hubble. The world was floored then, too. Over the next two decades or so, we saw the universe as it had never been seen before: rich, vivid and inviting.
I still treasure those discoveries. But the images arriving from Webb now make Hubble look like a pinhole camera.
“It’s amazing how gorgeous, scary, mind-blowing and hopeful it all is,” one person commented to the NASA Twitter account. Someone else called the pictures “the most INSANE BEAUTIFUL things ever!!!” Amidst the brilliance and wonder of the galaxies and nebulae shown – so close, so beautiful – more than one person said how small it made everything else feel.
I get that. I really do. But I want to flip the direction for a second.
Because in the face of all of this, I don’t feel small at all.
It’s true, starting the universe in the face has a way of putting things in perspective. Earthly matters seem to dwindle by comparison: our prejudices, our conflicts, even the Avalanche’s third Stanley Cup. But it’s not like there’s a spot labeled “You are Here” where The Universe sits just beyond the fence line, the next-door neighbor with the awesome photo albums.
We’re in it. Of it. Right here. Right now. Not a disconnected viewer, but a participant tied in to all the rest.
“It makes me feel more important,” my wife Heather told me after we’d both absorbed it all for a while. “Like there’s this wonderful, beautiful universe and I get to be a small part of it. And it’s part of me, too.”
I promise, I’m not going to turn into Yoda on you. Not today, anyway. But I want to linger on that point.
It’s easy to feel small. Many of us do it every day. We face a world that constantly seems beyond our strength, with more and more weighing us down, from the personal to the global. And so we decide we’re insignificant, that nothing we do could possibly matter.
But when we look outward, we rekindle hope.
A fan of time-travel fiction once noted that we write story after story about how taking a small action in the past can transform the present. And yet, he wrote, we remain skeptical that a small action now could transform the future.
Perspectives in space. Perspectives in time. Either way, we see the connections. We see ourselves: not small or insignificant, but part of something bigger, where every tiny piece is part of the greater beauty.
Maybe, just maybe, that view can help us shift our bit of the universe. Right here. Right now.
So go on. Take another look. Let yourself “wow” again.
It’s amazing what can happen when you get tangled up in the Webb.