The popular and worldwide success of the first photos from the new James Webb telescope tells us a lot about the state of the world.
This telescope, launched by an Ariane 5 rocket from the Kourou space centre last December, is first and foremost a magnificent example of very high-level scientific cooperation between countries that have chosen to give science its rightful place. It is an opportunity to show that democracies, when they want to, are always at the forefront of the most extreme science.
This telescope, the largest ever sent into space, positioned 1.5 million kilometres from Earth, can observe and photograph galaxies 13 billion light years away from Earth with eight times the precision of all previous attempts. And not just photographs visible to the naked eye, but also infrared photographs containing infinitely valuable information.
Many people may have thought that there was a better use for the several billion dollars that this project cost. I don’t think so. Beyond the immense poetic vertigo that these first images provoke, beyond the awareness of the unity of the human species, of the importance of time, of the vanity of our quarrels and our follies, one begins to dream, with the specialists who study them, of what we are going to learn about the Orion nebula (this cloud visible to the naked eye, four times the size of the Moon, within the Orion galaxy and which contains innumerable very young stars, It is the closest stellar nursery to us, at 1350 light-years), the Stephan’s Quintet (a group of galaxies made up of billions of stars, located 290 million light-years away in the constellation of Pegasus) or the chemical composition of the gas giant planet WASP-96b, (which could tell us a lot about the chemical composition of our own solar system). About what all this will help us to understand about how galaxies, stars and planets are born and die, how life can arise or disappear somewhere, and in particular about the extraordinarily improbable equilibrium conditions that have made it possible for life to arise, and to be maintained, in billions of forms and organisms, on this planet.
It will also allow us to have a more precise idea of what the Universe was like only a few 700 million years after the theoretical beginning of the Universe, and even perhaps earlier, during the first fractions of the first second of the Universe; and also of the possible existence of other universes simultaneous or prior to ours.
Finally, it will allow us to better understand in what unlikely conditions a consciousness could have developed enough, in one of the ten to the 22nd power (ten followed by 21 zeros) stars that make up the universe, to be able to ask itself these questions, even if the answers are still beyond our reach.
For it gives us first and foremost an answer, and in my opinion the best possible one today, the only possible one at that, to the question of why life exists on Earth, and why it is important to protect it: We are only here to make our world as liveable as possible, for as long as possible, for generations of human beings best trained in the requirements of reason, capable of working together, with the rest of nature, to build enough collective knowledge, and perhaps even collective consciousness, to elucidate this raison d’être, and to pierce what some call the Mystery. Yes, our raison d’être is to give ourselves the means to understand our raison d’être. Is it little? It is gigantic.
And this is true for humanity as well as for each of us: it is up to each of us, with the help of others, to understand our own raison d’être, and to realise it.
It is even, I believe, a characteristic of humanity to have enough faith in itself and in reason to think that, even if it does not yet know it, its reason for being exists, individually and collectively. And that it is absolutely necessary to protect life, intelligence and consciousness in order to find it. Even if this reason for being, ultimately, might not be in the domain of reason…