The first image from the James Webb Space Telescope was of a tiny, tiny speck of sky, so small you could blot it out if you held a grain of sand at arm’s length up to the heavens. But with the telescope’s power—eighteen giant mirrors, reporting from a million miles away— just 12.5 hours of observing time reveals in that space thousands of galaxies, some clustered together, some swooping and swirling. Even the tiny smudges in the image are galaxies.
On Tuesday, NASA released four more images, showcasing the range of the telescope: the spectrum of an exoplanet a thousand light years away, in which can be read its chemical composition (and the fact that it has clouds!); the nebula of a star’s explosive death; the best ever image of the galaxies of Stephan’s Quintet; and a close-up of the Carina Nebula, a “stellar nursery.”
This is one of those Big Science Moments, the kind that revolutionizes a field and galvanizes the public. A mission 30 years in the making, JWST offers scientists unprecedented views of the early universe, galactic and stellar evolution, and planets around other stars in our galaxy. The White House judged correctly when they had the president reveal the first image Monday night. Celebrities tweeted the images, a flood of memes ensued.
This was a whole new vocabulary of images to make meaning with, but their intrinsic meaning was deliciously overwhelming, too. A YouTuber shared a zoom-out view situating the Deep Field in the night sky with “we’re so small im gonna throw up.” A friend shared the Carina Nebula image to her Instagram story with “pst hey buddy you wanna feel feelings you were pretty sure the world in its current form had permanently numbed out of you.” And science professionals were hardly immune. Science journalist Shannon Stirone tweeted, “I can’t get over the structure in these. I feel destroyed. The telescope destroyed me.” Emily Calendrelli, host of the Netflix show Emily’s Wonder Lab captured a sentiment I’ve heard from many observers in a TikTok: “I look at this image and think, There is no way we are alone in the universe.” Well…is there?
Practically, the search for life beyond Earth is usually confined to our own galaxy, the only space within which we’d have a chance of detecting it. If life is rare, maybe we’re alone within the Milky Way, but these JWST images invite us to zoom out and out and out. The Deep Field image doesn’t offer new information about the size or age of the universe, but it makes the vastness visible. Instead of 100 billion stars in one galaxy, now we’re talking about roughly a quadrillion stars (a number so big it feels like nonsense, you see why we need images to make sense of it). Even if life is extraordinarily rare, rare times a quadrillion still seems like it should end up meaning the universe is home to more than just us.
This confident speculation is “sort of half science, half emotion,” astronomer Caleb Scharf, director of Columbia University’s Astrobiology Center, told me over email. All that space means more chances for life, but we don’t know what the odds are of life arising anywhere, even on Earth, where hindsight incorrectly makes it seem like it was a sure bet. Even with all the abundant real estate of the Deep Field, Scharf said, the likelihood of life “depends acutely on the part we don’t know, the odds for life, which might be unimaginably tiny, more or less canceling out the huge number of stars and galaxies.”
Astrophysicist Katie Mack told me over Twitter, “I do think it’s extraordinarily implausible that life happened only on one planet in one solar system (among hundreds of billions) in one galaxy (among trillions), over 13.8 billion years.” Scharf said he shares that feeling, but offered a caveat: “until we know what the probability of life’s emergence is (or how it works) we really cannot say this ‘scientifically’ since it hinges entirely on assumptions.” Meaning, you can’t extrapolate an event’s likelihood when you have only one example of its occurrence.
Ample room doesn’t necessitate occupation. Part of the problem is age. The galaxies in the JWST Deep Field, and the stars they contain, are not like what we see in the sky: they’re billions and billions of years older. Especially those most ancient red smudges, photographed in their youth—in the universe’s youth—would be chemically quite different from the Milky Way. The first stars formed from the remnants of the Big Bang, with just hydrogen and helium to work with. Planets form from the same material as their stars, but those light elements aren’t enough for worlds that can host life as we know it, or possibly planets at all. “For life as we know it to exist,” Scharf said, “built out of elements like carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen, the universe had to have reached a certain age where enough of those elements had been made by stars.”
But space is more than space for life. Maybe it’s limiting—or belittling—to see these vast, cosmic structures and think, This is room for more stuff like me. Anthropologist Lisa Messeri, author of Placing Outer Space, told me, “When we’re confronted with these awesome, hugely scaled images, we want to try to understand—we want to tame the awesomeness.” So we seek the familiar. Maybe space is just like here, but a little different, we idly think. The New York Times reported that after Monday night’s event, as the press was leaving the room, President Biden said, “I wonder what the press are like in those other places.”
Galaxies, nebulae, black holes. These incomprehensibly large and—dare I say it—alien structures become manageable when thought of in terms of life. “The sublime confronts us with this almost unfathomable immensity,” Messeri said, “and we are challenged to reign it in, to tame it, to make it understandable to our small human scale.” We do this by returning to the familiar scale of the planet.
The places in JWST’s first images are not places for us. But instead of seeking to speckle them with familiar, Earthly worlds, we can give in to the alienation and embrace the loneliness, let it transmute into a new kind of awe. Messeri told me that the JWST image that made her gasp was the one of Stephan’s Quintet, the galaxies tangled in gravitational dance. “It was the scale of it,” she said, but not just that—the Deep Field shows far more galaxies, after all. “Seeing these galaxies engaged in something—that, itself, is about not being alone.” There doesn’t need to be life for there to be communion. “There’s another way to think about what it means to be alone that isn’t a question of biology, that is instead a question of geography and gravity.” Messeri called their relationship a “kind of galactic community.” But it’s a community we cannot access.
Scientists study for years and years be able to understand the value of a galaxy unto itself. The rest of us can be awed by its scale, and entranced by the beautiful images (which are not raw images, but extracted by scientists from the telescope data, made beautiful with a layer of human processing and colorizing). So when we find ourselves thinking, Why is this important? Why is this beautiful? Why is this making me feel all sorts of big things? we may take a shortcut to This feels meaningful and immense because it shows there’s room for life in the universe.
But sit with another possibility: What if we are alone? What if there’s no other life at all? What is the value and meaning of all these galaxies and almost uncountable stars, still, then?
The question of life in other galaxies will probably never be truly answered, not in our lifetime nor humanity’s. We may find microbes on another planet, or not. We may, with JWST or another powerful telescope, see the traces of life in an exoplanet’s atmosphere, or we may not; this kind of evidence would hardly be conclusive of anyone running around out there. We may someday pin down the odds of life’s arising, its frequency and predilections, and we may be able to apply those principles to galaxies beyond our own. But humans will never travel to the far reaches of the universe on display in JWST’s images, will never know them with our own eyes or our feet on their ground. We can gaze at the images captured by our telescopic emissaries, and we can treasure life on Earth and be awed by the cosmos all the same. If we want aliens, the most alien kinship would be with the facets of the universe that don’t have to do with life at all.
Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.