From the aboriginal Australians to the Zuni people, human civilizations have celebrated the winter solstice for as long as we’ve comprehended the seasons. It is a time for optimism, hope, miracles, and light. Even before we understood the solar system, we knew the basics: at a certain point, less sun gives way to more. These days, we’ve figured out a lot more about our place in the universe, but that doesn’t make this moment any less special. Humans look up, and forward; it’s who we are.
This morning’s launch of the James Webb Space Telescope got me thinking about where we’re at as a species. We live in an age of wonders, but it doesn’t always feel that way. For better and worse, we’ve atomized; we don’t have as many universals as we used to; sometimes it seems like solstice celebrations are one of the few things we have in common any more. We’ve broken down a lot of old structures and sources of meaning, which has been great for a lot of people, but we sort of forgot to replace them with anything. People report having fewer friends than they used to. Deaths of despair have skyrocketed in this country, and lots of people feel lonely and isolated, a situation that the last two years have not improved. Maybe it’s all a big coincidence that we’ve forgotten how to talk to each other, but I’m not so sure. People need communities and shared goals and things bigger than themselves.
Which brings me back to thinking about that telescope, about the thousands of people who worked together for decades to build a device which, if it works, might revolutionize our understanding of reality. If we want to find meaning in something, work together, and better ourselves, we could do worse than focusing on space. It’s how we will press forward with figuring out what the universe is; it’s how we will defend our planet from species-destroying asteroids; it’s how we will find extraplanetary life. These represent big tasks and big questions. Space exploration is broadly popular, too, and it’s not even that expensive, in the grand scheme of things–the James Webb telescope only cost $10 billion.
There’s something deeply humbling about cosmology and space exploration; something awesome, in the old sense of the term. They inspire feelings in me that a less atheistic person might find in religion. Carl Sagan had it right when he convinced NASA to turn Voyager 1 around and take one last picture: Astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.
So I guess my message on the darkest week of the year is: there are worse directions to look than up!
Happy launch day to all who celebrate.