Where tech aligns

The James Webb Telescope’s Year of Awesomeness

The James Web Space Telescope is a little over a year old this month. Here’s a quick look back at thirteen months of tech as a force for good.

Covering science and technology oscillates between polar extremes. On the one hand, you find a press more than happy to parrot any story, crafted by savvy PR departments, without follow-up questions. A subset of people seem to view “the science” as a religious dictum, brought down from on high by materialistic priests wearing lab coats. Often the question of whether we can subsumes any queries about whether we should.

The other side pursues a fear-based approach, breathlessly warning about the new and scary technologies that will destroy us. Their Venn diagram overlaps with the neo-Luddite crowd who want to restore an imagined pre-industrial utopia, free from capitalism, global warming, pollution, liberalism, etc. A choose-your-own-adventure of societal ills, waiting to be cured by fleeing into the woods and raising chickens. It’s a notion appealing to a wide variety of political stripes, who find themselves reading Wittgenstein or Ted Kaczynski and nodding along.   

There has to be a third way forward. Reasonable people can have well-founded fears about how technology is rapidly transforming our society and the ability of totalitarians to harness it for control without reverting to using typewriters. We should be excited about technological breakthroughs and still be able to question the incentives of corporations and scientists. 

We are living through incredible technology-driven transformations. Some of these will help society, and some will unleash horrors, but that has been true since our ancestors started sharpening stones. We will have to champion the technology aligning with our values and fight the ones that don’t. I noticed this dichotomy while reading the pearl-clutching around AI, and the Webb telescope being online for a year. 

The Webb telescope is a powerful reminder of what we are capable of as a species, and in more ways than one: 1) it’s a technical marvel that has opened our eyes to aspects of the universe that were previously hidden, and 2) it has been the subject of an outrageous culture war fight over naming, legacy, and sexual politics.

The telescope is an astounding piece of engineering, using infrared cameras to peer into areas of the universe never seen before. Built with 18 hexagonal mirrors unfurled in space, it has been sending back spectacular images since last July. It took over three decades to build.

We’ve seen images of exoplanets, galaxies reaching back to the formation of the universe, stellar nurseries, and molecular clouds filled with the building blocks of life and the coldest ice in the universe. 

So instead of another article filled with doom and gloom, we thought we’d collect the most fantastic images the telescope has captured and revel in their beauty. It represents humanity at its finest, when we strive to slip our mortal coils and venture into the unknown. Not for glory or money, but simply because it’s there.

If you want to learn more about the science behind the JWST check out these great resources.

  • BIGTHINK has an excellent visual representation showing how the telescope has performed better than anyone expected.
  • The MIT Technology Review has a piece explaining how the JWST is collecting more data than scientists can analyze.
  • Jet Propulsion Laboratory discusses how the telescope will help physicists answer questions about how stars are formed and galaxies interact.

You can find many more Webb telescope images in this online gallery. It’s been a little over a year since the telescope was launched, and already the results are revolutionizing our understanding of the universe. Here’s to many more years.

As for the culture war fight, the New York Times actually did a good job covering the smear campaign against the telescope’s namesake and his defenders in the astronomy community.

Long live the telescope and the memory of James Webb. Here’s to many more annual galleries to come.