My plan was to write a continuation of the previous blog about Campus as a Lab (CAL) (July 19, 2022) but as usual, reality interfered in a big way! I got a Facebook message from a friend that included the picture below. My friend is a lawyer; he has been instrumental in helping me to uncover my early history and, to my knowledge, has nothing to do with science. The picture in his Facebook message came with a Hebrew “caption” shown above the figure, taken from Chapter 1 of the book of Genesis. I am also including the English translation of the Bible here:
וְהָאָרֶץ, הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ, וְחֹשֶׁךְ, עַל-פְּנֵי תְהוֹם; וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים, מְרַחֶפֶת עַל-פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם
The Book of Genesis, Chapter 1: “And the Earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.”
This landscape of “mountains” and “valleys” speckled with glittering stars is actually the edge of a nearby, young, star-forming region called NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula. Captured in infrared light by NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope, this image reveals for the first time previously invisible areas of star birth. (Source: NASA)
I also included the original NASA caption below the photograph. The image has become a well-known example of data from the new James Webb Telescope. I teach cosmology, so I had obviously seen this photograph before. The key word in the Hebrew caption was “Tohu-Vavohu.” The English Bible translated it as, “without form, void” but Wikipedia gives a much broader interpretation of the concept. The original translation, in my opinion, shouldn’t even be included in the broad interpretation because it directly implies absolute void, which Tohu-Vavohu doesn’t cover. My preferred translation is complete chaos. The interpretation that I took from my friend’s posting was that NASA was finally able to take a photograph of the world’s chaos before the spirit of God flew above water to put some order in the universe.
My response was that—actually, normalized to size, our little inhabited planet is much more chaotic than the universe around us, a statement supported by science.
To make progress, it helps to have some background information about the Webb Telescope, again from Wikipedia:
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is a space telescope designed primarily to conduct infrared astronomy. As the largest optical telescope in space, its greatly improved infrared resolution and sensitivity allow it to view objects too old, distant, or faint for the Hubble Space Telescope. This is expected to enable a broad range of investigations across the fields of astronomy and cosmology, such as observation of the first stars and the formation of the first galaxies, and detailed atmospheric characterization of potentially habitable exoplanets.
The U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) led JWST’s development in collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). The NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in Maryland managed telescope development, the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore on the Homewood Campus of Johns Hopkins University operates JWST, and the prime contractor was Northrop Grumman. The telescope is named after James E. Webb, who was the administrator of NASA from 1961 to 1968 during the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs.
The James Webb Space Telescope was launched on 25 December 2021 on an Ariane 5 rocket from Kourou, French Guiana, and arrived at the Sun–Earth L2 Lagrange point in January 2022. The first image from JWST was released to the public via a press conference on 11 July 2022. The telescope is the successor of the Hubble as NASA’s flagship mission in astrophysics.
The Wikipedia entry is much longer than the three paragraphs above and includes the history of the development of the JWST. The concept started in the 1980s, with some serious planning in the 1990s. The initial budget of 1 billion US$ mushroomed to more than $10 billion. Those who are now part of our past were looking at an uncertain future. The picture that we see and the few others that came with it show how well those efforts worked. All of us are justifiably very proud.
Let me now shift to the content of the picture. The NASA caption tells us that it covers a star-forming region called NGC 3324 in the Carina Nebula, a part of our Milky Way. Star-forming regions have always been the most fascinating products of major telescopes. Just search Google Images for “star birth” and you will be exposed to the most fascinating collection of cosmological photographs—most of them from well before the JWST. “Our” photograph is part of this collection.
Meanwhile, Wikipedia can give us a short description of the Carina Nebula:
The Carina Nebula or Eta Carinae Nebula (catalogued as NGC 3372; also known as the Great Carina Nebula) is a large, complex area of bright and dark nebulosity in the constellation Carina, located in the Carina–Sagittarius Arm of the Milky Way galaxy. The nebula is approximately 8,500 light-years (2,600 pc) from Earth.
The nebula has within its boundaries the large Carina OB1 association and several related open clusters, including numerous O-type stars and several Wolf–Rayet stars. Carina OB1 encompasses the star clusters Trumpler 14 and Trumpler 16. Trumpler 14 is one of the youngest known star clusters at half a million years old. Trumpler 16 is the home of WR 25, currently the most luminous star known in our Milky Way galaxy, together with the less luminous but more massive and famous Eta Carinae star system and the O2 supergiant HD 93129A. Trumpler 15, Collinder 228, Collinder 232, NGC 3324, and NGC 3293 are also considered members of the association. NGC 3293 is the oldest and furthest from Trumpler 14, indicating sequential and ongoing star formation.
The most important indicator of any cosmological observation is the object’s distance from us (or the telescope that now sits about 1.5 million km from Earth). The Wikipedia entry tells us that this Nebula is 8,500 light years away from the telescope. While a light-year sounds more like a unit of time and not distance, it refers to the distance that light can travel in a year, in free space. The speed of light is the fastest speed that can be attained in our universe. It amounts to 300 million meters/sec or 300,000 km/sec or 186,000 miles/sec. We can multiply this number by the number of seconds in a year (365 x 24 x 60 x 60 = 31,536,000) to find that one light year amounts to 9.46 trillion km. So, the distance of the Carina Nebula from us is 9.46 x 8500 = 80,410 trillion km = 80.4 quadrillion km. Most science uses the metric system but if you prefer it in miles, just multiply this number by 0.62.
The interesting part is what light JWAT “saw” from the nebula. It took light 8,500 years to travel from the nebula to the telescope. The picture that the JWAT saw is not how the nebula looks now but how it looked 8,500 years ago.
How did Earth look 8,500 years ago? To get back to the message that my friend sent to me with the Hebrew caption, when did Judaism actually start?
The origins of Judaism date back more than 3500 years. This religion is rooted in the ancient near eastern region of Canaan (which today constitutes Israel and the Palestinian territories). Judaism emerged from the beliefs and practices of the people known as “Israel”. What is considered classical, or rabbinical, Judaism did not emerge until the 1st century CE.
For all we know, the Carina Nebula, and all the fascinating structures in the JWAT photographs, might even not exist today but we are able to monitor the distant past now because of the perseverance that NASA showed in its push forward in the face of an uncertain future.
Let us now move to the present and ask ourselves: are we capable now of showing the same perseverance in striving for a safe future? Our collective existence depends upon our doing so. To probe that, I will shift our attention to a recent speech by the secretary general of the United Nations, given at the Petersberg Climate Dialogue in Berlin earlier this month:
The United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, issued a dire warning on Monday to representatives from 40 countries at the Petersberg Climate Dialogue, calling for more concrete action to tackle what he called a “climate emergency.”
“We have a choice,” Mr. Guterres said in a video message. “Collective action or collective suicide. It is in our hands.”
Mr. Guterres did not directly address the heat wave punishing much of Europe, but his comments came as swaths of the continent faced dangerously high temperatures on Monday, spurring wildfires in some areas.
Well, Mr. Guterres is a native of Portugal. He is fully aware that the number of heat deaths from the recent heat wave in Spain and Portugal approached 2,000. He gave us a choice between collective action and collective suicide—the same one that I have posed since the beginning of this blog. This is almost equivalent, if we go back to a biblical scale, to the idea that the absence of collective action indicates that a flag is rising to invite us all to hell. I will obviously return to this issue in future blogs.