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A more powerful lens

  • 18 July 2022
NASA this week released fascinating images from its James Webb Space Telescope, giving us a glimpse of the universe as we’ve never seen it before. The telescope is 100 times more sensitive than the Hubble Space Telescope, and helps us see the universe in remarkable depth and detail. The first image released includes galaxies from the earliest days of the universe – which might now, billions of years later, no longer even exist.

Our sense of the universe shapes our sense of what it means to be human. In exploring the skies, many hope that we could see some signs of other life out there so we might no longer feel alone in the universe. There’s also the hope of expanding our horizons, travelling beyond our solar system, even to other stars. The more we learn about the universe, the more we might dream of these far-off possibilities.

Turning our eyes to the universe also helps us better understand our unique and fragile existence on this planet. There may be other civilisations out there, but what we can see through the most powerful lens available is that the universe is vast, and mostly empty and cold. And even where it’s not empty and cold, it’s mostly extraordinarily hot and volatile. There are few places like Earth where life might take hold.

If there is another civilisation out there peering into the skies like us, it will be a long way away. Light and radio waves from the Earth today might take thousands of years to reach them. What would they see as they catch a glimpse of life on Earth in the 21st century? I wonder what they would make of our preoccupations, and what they might see through their powerful lenses that we ourselves cannot?  


'Our alien viewers might wonder why our efforts to ensure the future of the planet and all of humanity are so often compromised by local politics and interests.'  

I’ve been thinking recently about Africa, where millions of people are facing a food crisis resulting from the impact of COVID-19 and exacerbated by the war in Ukraine. The UNDP released a report last week that soaring inflation rates increased the number of poor people in developing countries by 71 million in the last three months alone. Increasing interest rates around the world, coupled with pandemic-fuelled debt, will likely exacerbate the crisis even more. Yet our alien viewers might be surprised to find little mention