Science | History | Design & Technology

Stunning snapshots from the dawn of time

Do they make any difference? Astonishing. Amazing. Breathtaking. Yes, Nasa’s James Webb telescope is rightly praised today. But does it change how we should live our lives? Around 930,000 miles above your head, there is a vast, golden saucer, pointing out into the universe. It has not been there long – just seven months. Recently, it spent 12.5 hours studying a patch of sky roughly the same size as a grain of sand held at arm’s length by a person on the surface of the Earth. Yesterday, this saucer, known as the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) beamed back the first images of this tiny grain. And it is swarming with beautiful, radiant galaxies. Even more amazingly, the galaxies we are seeing for the first time are billions of years old. Light travels at a rate of about 186,000 miles per second, so the light just reaching us now from these distant galaxies has taken aeonsAn aeon is an indefinite and extremely long period of time. to get to us. That means the JWST has captured these galaxies as they were just 600 million years after the Big Bang. Some have probably ceased to exist. Others will have been catapulted trillions of miles away to the other end of the universe. The telescope promises to revolutionise what we know about our universe. It can tell us how stars formed in the first place. It can explain the origin of supermassive black holes. It can reveal how water, one of the most vital ingredients of life, arrived on our planet. But some think none of this really matters in our everyday lives. They point out that the JWST took 26 years and £8.4bn to build. That is a lot of money and effort that could have been better spent on medical or agricultural research to improve people’s lives. Others, however, think we should not underestimate the spiritual value of this kind of research. It is only natural for human beings to yearn to know where we come from. The JWST might well have captured the stardust that eventually descended upon the surface of the Earth to form us. Do they make any difference? Starry-eyed Yes: In this image, we see something that no previous generation of human beings, possibly no other intelligent life at all, has ever witnessed. It is a reminder of our extraordinary achievements as a species. No: A real achievement would be eradicating hunger and poverty on Earth, not spending billions on stargazing. This image is nothing but a reminder of why we will not last as a species. Or… Astronomical research like this might not be worth it if it were just for the wonder of seeing far-off galaxies, but it has tangible practical benefits as well. Some day, it may just save us all.       KeywordsAeons - An aeon is an indefinite and extremely long period of time.

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