The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the world’s most powerful telescope, released its first images this week. “Oh my gosh! Galaxies at the edge of time!” a beaming astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson said in a viral TikTok after seeing the first image.
This telescope is a huge advance in humanity’s ability to see and understand the universe. It can capture radiation emitted from the first stars over 13 billion years ago. It is so sensitive that it can detect the heat from a bee as far away as the moon.
Look at the photo below, the very first image from the telescope released. Nearly everything in the image is a galaxy, a group of stars held together by gravity. The light from those galaxies left those stars billions of years in the past. Each of the galaxies contain roughly hundreds of billions of stars. And this image covers just one very small portion of the sky.
Astronomers said that if you take a grain of sand and hold it at arm’s length against the night sky, it will cover an area roughly the same size as what is captured in this picture with its many hundreds of billions of stars. The universe is infinitely vast—and expanding. This telescope allows scientists to probe very deeply into the earliest origins of the universe—to see when the first stars emerged perhaps 100 million years after the origin of the universe in the Big Bang (see Key Concepts in Astronomy below), to find out much more about how the universe developed from those very earliest stars to now, and to see the potential building blocks for life on other planets.
All of this is a very big deal. A key dimension of Bob Avakian’s new communism is the relationship between the search for truth and getting to communism, a world beyond exploitation, oppression and antagonistic social divisions.1 In this context, he has emphasized the importance of seeking the truth about reality in a sweeping way, not just what is immediately necessary or useful, but part of the rich and multi-faceted process that needs to characterize the world-historic transition to communism.
… there is a whole thing being missed if truth is approached in a narrow and utilitarian way. If somebody discovers something about the big bang, that will be interesting and exciting. Truths are important just for what they are, because that’s the kind of world we want to get to. For what they are. Human beings do need to be amazed. You don’t need religion to realize or appreciate that. In the motion of the material world and the interaction of human beings with the rest of reality, mysteries get resolved and new mysteries emerge. Why wouldn’t someone with broadness of mind be interested in questions of cosmology in their own right? (Cosmology refers to the science and philosophy of the origins and development of the universe.) (Bob Avakian, from “Intoxicated with the Truth”)
A Giant Leap in Knowing the Universe
Scientists have compared the breakthrough the Webb telescope represents to when in 1609 the famous Italian scientist Galileo looked at the sky with a telescope for the very first time—everywhere he looked, he saw something new, which he had never imagined. Galileo used a telescope he made by hand to observe the never-before-seen moons of Jupiter and the orbit of Venus. His discoveries challenged the view that the Earth was the center of the cosmos. Church authorities threatened him with torture—and death—if he dared to tell the world of his discoveries, which refuted their conception of an Earth-centric cosmos.
The Webb telescope is one million miles above earth, in space, where the air, water, and heat from the earth can’t block its images. It doesn’t “see” in the range of visible light that the human eye can see, but mainly in what is called infrared light (infrared is closely related to heat). The instrument is an amazing technical feat—one of its devices for observing must be cooled to minus 447 degrees Fahrenheit, near the absolutely coldest temperature possible, so that the telescope’s own heat doesn’t overpower the faint signals from distant stars or planets. This is the product of 30 years of work by about 20,000 scientists, engineers, and others from 14 countries—this underscores the fact that science is a collective enterprise, it should know no borders, and it is precious for and belongs to humanity.
The scientists running the Webb telescope released five images this week. They give a preview of what kinds of things the telescope will be working on in the years to come. One picture we described above is the “deep field,” which shows galaxies billions of years in the past. Astronomers want to use the Webb to capture images of the very first stars, perhaps 100 million years after the Big Bang. Another picture they released, “southern ring nebula,” shows two views of a star which has exploded and is sending waves of dust and gas into space. Almost all of the elements that make up our world, like carbon and oxygen, are produced inside the nuclear furnace of stars and are sent out in explosions like this and other ways. This then lays the basis for a more complex universe, including life itself. The Webb will greatly expand our understanding of how all this happened, and also promises breakthroughs in the search for life outside our planet.
It is worth thinking about the fact that something like this telescope can be brought forward even in a society and world like this one where the capitalist-imperialist system overall distorts, mangles, and suppresses truth and science and the scientific method (see box for some of the ways that this has affected the Webb and its launch) towards its ends and objectives—also denying this scientific knowledge for vast sections of humanity. In contrast, what this points to is the unprecedented and yet unimaginable potential of what could really be brought forward in a society and world which does not do this. Bob Avakian speaks to this here:
Communism will not put an end to—nor somehow involve the suppression of—awe and wonder, the imagination, and “the need to be amazed.” On the contrary, it will give much greater, and increasing, scope to this. It will give flight on a much grander scale to the imagination, in dialectical relation with—and in an overall sense as a part of—a systematic and comprehensive scientific outlook and method for comprehending and transforming reality. (Excerpted from BAsics 4:30)
People look at what religion calls “the heavens.” They look at the stars, the galaxies. They can see a small part of the vastness of the universe, and they can imagine the greater vastness of the universe. Or they can look on a small scale, look with a microscope and see a small microbe or whatever, and be amazed by what goes on internally within that. They can ponder the relation between what you can see with a microscope and what you can see with a telescope. This is an essential quality of human beings. Human beings will always strive for this. Far from trying to suppress this, or failing to recognize it, we can and should and will give much fuller expression to it.
Communism will not put an end to—nor somehow involve the suppression of—awe and wonder, the imagination, and “the need to be amazed.” On the contrary, it will give much greater, and increasing, scope to this. It will give flight on a much grander scale to the imagination, in dialectical relation with—and in an overall sense as a part of—a systematic and comprehensive scientific outlook and method for comprehending and transforming reality.
Bob Avakian, BAsics 4:30
Dirty “secrets” of NASA and James Webb
Some scientists have fiercely criticized naming the space satellite after James Webb, who was head of National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the U.S. government agency which produced the Webb, in the early 1960s. NASA was founded in 1958 after the Soviet Union (USSR) launched a spacecraft called Sputnik in 1957. The U.S ruling class freaked out that their imperialist rivals might be getting ahead of them technologically and in the building of rockets. This was the so-called “golden age” of NASA when the government funded huge projects which were closely linked to their military preparations for war with the USSR, and to compete with them to prove that it was “USA #1” in all things including space. James Webb presided over NASA during this period.
Earlier, in the 1950s, he had a high position in the U.S. State Department where he had been part of forging its psychological warfare program. Webb has been accused, while at the Department, of purging it of LGBT employees. Several prominent scientists wrote an editorial in Scientific American asking NASA to rename the telescope. (Some suggested naming the telescope after Harriet Tubman, who used the stars in the night sky as a guide to help enslaved people to freedom.) NASA promised an investigation and a response which never came.
And carrying forward that ugly tradition into today, when Joe Biden introduced the first photograph from the Webb, he said, “These images are going to remind the world that America can do big things. And they’ll remind the American people, especially our children, that there’s nothing beyond our capacity—nothing beyond our capacity.” What a disgusting statement and also a big lie—putting brand “America” on the captured light from stars billions of years ago! The truth is that science is fundamentally international, and is a product of and belongs to humanity. And the Webb project itself involved people from many countries. And yes, the U.S. and other rich countries have resources for things like this telescope, but these resources are the result of massive brutal exploitation of the people around the world. The U.S. government, locked into the logic of capitalism that judges everything based on profit and competition, spends only a minute portion of its wealth on science.
Some Key Concepts in Astronomy
Big Bang: The current scientific theory of the origin of our universe is that it began 13.8 billion years ago in an event known as the Big Bang. The Big Bang started the universe we know with a massive expansion that led to our ever-expanding cosmos.
Galaxy: A galaxy is a large grouping of stars which is held together by gravity. A typical galaxy can have 100 billion stars. It is estimated that there are over 100 billion galaxies. Many, many stars have planets that revolve around them.
Infrared radiation: Visible light, radio waves, X-rays, infrared radiation are all electro-magnetic waves with different frequencies. The different frequencies of visible light the human eye sees appear as different colors. Infrared radiation has a low frequency the eye cannot see, and is closely connected to heat.
The speed of light and looking backward in time: Light travels at a very fast but finite speed of about 186,000 miles per second. The distance light travels in a year is called a light year. For the very distant objects that the Webb telescope observes, for example, those that are 13 billion light years away, the light from those objects is also 13 billion years old. So, when the Webb makes images of them, the image shows what it was like 13 billion years ago.
Red shift: When a moving object sends out a wave, its wavelengths are shortened when the object is moving toward you, and the wavelengths are stretched out when the object is moving away. With sound, which is also a wave, we see this when an ambulance is approaching, and we hear the pitch of the sound that it is making as higher (higher sounds correspond to shortened wavelength) and when it is going away from us it sounds lower. Astronomers must take this into account when observing the light from distant sources. The universe itself is expanding, and the light from distant sources is “stretched out” by the time it reaches us. Light that was originally blue can arrive at the telescope as red—or “red-shifted.” Light can be red-shifted so far that it no longer arrives as visible light, but as infrared light, or even microwaves (as in microwave oven).