Nasa’s James Webb telescope reminds us how astronomy has shaped the modern world

Justin E. H. Smith in The New Statesman:

While the question of alien life is never far from our investigations of distant galactic structures, the device’s distinctive honeycomb structure seems emblematic of the organic complexity of our own planet, of what it has been capable of producing, and what it is capable of projecting out into space.

As usual with expensive astronomical projects, there are complaints about all the ways the money might have been better spent here on Earth. We are neglecting complex and fragile habitats, it is said, some of which we now risk losing through ecological crisis, yet instead we are seeking to discern the nature of objects so distant that they are unlikely to have any practical relevance for terrestrial life. This objection is reinforced by the fact that the Webb telescope was not conceived to deliver anything fundamentally different from what its predecessor, the Hubble, has been yielding since its launch in 1990 except a higher-quality version of the same – the Webb telescope has the power to detect distant objects up to 100 times fainter than anything Hubble can see.

What these complaints miss is that nothing could be more existentially urgent than knowing our place in the world, which means in part knowing the extent, the diversity, and the nature of the entities that make up the entire cosmos.

More here.