“Space is big,” Douglas Adams once wrote in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. “You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist’s, but that’s just peanuts to space.”
Don’t look now, but he may have understated the case.
Remember the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble that sent back amazingly clear star field images last year? Well, it’s back for another round. Astronomers studying those images have found six tremendous galaxies dating back about 13.1 billion years … which means the early universe was about 100 times bigger than we thought.
“We’ve been informally calling these objects ‘universe breakers’ — and they have been living up to their name so far,” astronomer Joel Leja told CBS.
Another put it even more simply to the press: “We just discovered the impossible.”
Now, depending on your perspective, this might not seem like such a (pardon the phrase) big deal. After all, it’s not something that’s going to instantly clean the atmosphere, bring peace on Earth and lead the Broncos back to the Super Bowl. Lots of stars? So what?
But from another angle, it’s huge. Not only does this add to our knowledge, it forces us to revisit it. We had an idea of how quickly galaxies come together. Now it looks like we were being too modest. And if so, old ideas need to give way in the face of new information.
That’s a basic tool of science. It’s also something we’re not terribly good at in our day-to-day lives.
Previously in this column, I’ve mentioned what I call the Paul Simon Rule, derived from a verse in his song “The Boxer”:
Still a man hears what he wants to hear,
And disregards the rest.
Put simply, we’re a stubborn bunch. Sometimes that’s been our saving grace as a species as we outlast war, disaster and the rise and fall of Jerry Springer. But it also means that we tend to hold onto ideas long past their sell-by date.
Why? Because staying with what we “know” is comfortable. Certainly more comfortable than having to rearrange our mental furniture and maybe even acknowledge we were wrong.
Take a look at the last Super Bowl. A thrilling, down-to-the-wire game exploded into controversy because of a holding penalty that basically killed the Eagles’ chance for a comeback. And even after the player in question admitted he had been holding, it didn’t really change anything. Fans had already staked out their positions on whether it was justified or a joke, and nobody was budging.
At our core, we are storytelling creatures. We’re happiest when things fit a pattern. And if the story fits what we already believe, well, then we’re golden. Studies have suggested that our reasoning originally developed to win arguments rather than to find facts, especially since we’re so often better at seeing flaws in someone else’s logic than our own.
So when something comes along that forces us to rethink, it’s a big deal indeed. Even more so when we succeed. It’s a moment of humility that moves us forward, allows us to learn, opens up new worlds that we might not have considered before.
In its own way, those moments rebuild a universe at record speed. Maybe even faster than those ancient stars.
Let them happen.
You might just find that they give you space to grow.