After crying while looking at its first photos released by NASA, Satyen K. Bordoloi pens a love letter to what itself is a paean to human ingenuity and imagination – the James Webb Space Telescope

Dear James Webb Space Telescope,

When NASA released the first images it reconstructed from your data on July 12, the meme-makers went on overdrive. Images comparing the clarity of your image next to Hubble’s, made the rounds. A joke crept up in my mind as well: at $10 billion you were the most expensive camera upgrade ever.

Perhaps the most famous meme of JWST’s first images

I cried looking at your first images as they reminded me of the Pale Blue Dot photo of earth Voyager 1 sent in 1990, which Carl Sagan so succinctly summed up: “The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.”

Your first photos made us look smaller still but with a difference. Your ‘camera’ was pointed not towards earth, but in the opposite direction, in the direction that we came from: you were literally peering down into the abyss of our past. I was excited wondering what you’d find.

But a friend asked me: is the JWST worth so much money? Especially considering how the world seems to be falling apart to the greed of power politicians invading other countries, or those dividing their own nations on falsehoods while they call the truth ‘fake news’.

Her question left me thinking till you found something so stunning I skipped a beat: you peered into the atmosphere of a planet WASP-96 b – a hot, puffy gas giant little larger than Jupiter that is a whopping 1,150 light years away to unambiguously confirm the presence of water vapour along with evidence of haze and clouds.

Water is the only source of all life that we know so far in the universe. This is the furthest we have found traces of water so far, the last being 40 light-years away in the TRAPPIST-1 system that Hubble found in 2017.

Within days you brought us the closest we have ever been to answering the question: are we alone in the universe? Before your life is over, you will make this question rhetorical with the obvious answer being a deafening no.

Yet people on my pale blue dot carried on like nothing had happened: Russia continued to bomb Ukraine and the rest of the world continued taking 10 billion selfies a day and spreading xenophobia in the same breath they talked of ‘self-love’? Where is the world defence committee, or alien greeting groupies that are set up in alien invasion movies after such momentous finds?

You went up later than Hubble but you are seeing way past what Hubble could. Maybe you could go into the past of humans as well and give us some sense of the 12,000 years of human science, the ingenuity, imagination and the millions of inventions over the centuries that it took for us to fly a million miles from earth to look 13.7 billion years into the past.

Your budget went from $1 billion to $10 billion, you took nearly 3 decades, your parents had to invent previously unseen and unimagined technologies and you had 344 single-point failures, any of which could have shut you down (Mars missions typically have 70 to 80). I shudder to imagine how many million things had to work perfectly for you to do what you do. You are the pinnacle of human achievement, the hope of humanity. Yet, instead of the thousands of your parents who gave you life – especially that one steller hero Gregory Robinson – the world is busy worshipping peddlers of stupidity on TikTok?

Carina Nebula (Image: NASA)

Magic has literally come alive in and through you, yet people are busy watching magical YouTubers? Talk about worshipping false gods?

Your proud parents say you can see light from 13.7 billion years into our past, just a few million years after the birth of the universe. But I can tell humans to start by looking at something that’s older: their hands, the birds and the trees – every single atom of whose was formed at the birth of the universe and has been entangled in a cosmic dance of creation and destruction ever since. This thing that is our bodies that wraps our consciousnesses, will also disintegrate and form something else, but before they do we can look up, down and sideways to marvel at this beauteous universe. If there is a purpose for life, for consciousness, one of them has to be to look at this fantastical universe and skip a heartbeat, forgetting to breathe for a few moments.

WASP-96 b (Image: NASA)
SMACS_0723 (Image: NASA)

To me at least, nothing has done it as well as the photos you took. Since you are peering into the past, maybe in one of those photos I am seeing the formation of my own galaxy, and thus the real birth of me, and even you.

But what is the point of all this if the world blows itself to smithereens and you, like Charlton Heston in the original Planet of the Apes are left screaming at humanity, “You maniacs! You blew it up! Damn you!”

Hence, I take your permission to propose a new competition for power politics in the world, in the same mould as the old one of ‘my-di*k-is-bigger-than-yours’, except this time the competition will be ‘my disk is bigger than yours’.

Can we please have China – notorious for organizing the largest mass of humanity towards singular goals – send out a Jing Fang Space Telescope – named after the master who was perhaps the first in the world to postulate that the moon’s light is a reflection of the sun?

Can we have India – lauded for making the cheapest and best space technology – send out a Brahmagupta Space Telescope – named after the guru who perhaps was the first to consider zero as a number and expound on the concept of sunyata i.e. ‘nothingness’ that’s made everything, including JWST possible.

Can Russia stop war for 10 days to thus save enough funds to make its Rasputin Space Telescope making Putin happy that it has its name and yet doesn’t and is actually named after a man who might have been horrible, but who famously had to be poisoned, shot and drowned before he died – a good skill for a space telescope to have.

Can Elon Musk, instead of buying Twitter, divert a fraction of that $44 billion to send an El Monk Us Space Telescope? Since Elon Musk’s superpower is turning his vanity into practical inventions, El Monk Us is named so because it is an anagram of Elon Musk.

James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) (Image: Shutterstock)

What you have shown us, JWST, is what the universe looked like in its infancy. Hence on the 12th, another joke formed in my mind: at $10 billion these are literally the most expensive baby pictures ever taken. But you know what, every single pixel in it is worth every single penny spent on it. I just hope at the end of it all, you don’t have to scream, “You maniacs! You blew it up! Damn you!”

I hope people focus enough for you to remind us that we are all made of stars and to the stars, we shall return.

Southern Ring Nebula (Image: NASA)

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Satyen is an award-winning scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. He loves to let his pen roam the intersection of artificial intelligence, consciousness, and quantum mechanics. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.

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