The “deepest view” of our universe to date was revealed on Monday by President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. The James Webb Space Telescope, a $10 billion instrument launched on Christmas Day to explore the very earliest epoch of space, captured the image of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723.
It’s a remarkable accomplishment that represents years of preparation, development, research, and engineering. The image, also referred to as Webb’s First Deep Field, marks the start of a new phase in astronomy. The excitement among space scientists worldwide is unmatched. The revelation was truly their time, whether they’re interested in researching the first stars, the atmospheres of exoplanets, black holes, or cosmic objects we haven’t even seen yet. Astronomers in the room would undoubtedly be excited as they discussed the first image, wouldn’t we assume?
Initially, NASA planned to release the first batch of five Webb images (actually, four and one spectra) during a press conference on July 12 morning. Still going on is that conference. However, the schedule was changed 24 hours earlier. Due to a last-minute change, NASA announced they would reveal Webb’s first image with US President Joe Biden’s assistance late on Monday, July 11.
At 2:00 PT, the press conference was supposed to begin. It began in earnest a little after 3 o’clock. Astronomers and space enthusiasts argued online about NASA’s “hold music” (for what it’s worth, I was a fan) and fiddled with images from NASA HQ that surprisingly revealed the image ahead of time as they patiently awaited the reveal.
Waiting was enjoyable. I think it was more enjoyable than the press conference.
The proceedings were introduced by Kamala Harris, who spoke about the “power of American innovation and global cooperation,” and then Biden took the stage. He claimed that his preparations for a trip to the Middle East were the reason for the delays. The President then described Webb’s one-million-mile journey from Earth to its home. He added a little more confusion and said, “First of all, that blows my mind.
The scene in Mean Girls where a young girl is giving a “inspiring” speech at the school and a student yells out, “she doesn’t even go here!” before she admits she’s not even a student at that school came to mind when I was there.
Bill Nelson, the NASA administrator, took over from Biden after that. Nelson gave a brief speech that came across as a little disorganized and stumbled over some of the details of the image. Less than three minutes had passed when everyone left for home. The press conference was over in no more than 11 minutes. Some have claimed that this is because the briefing was shifting to tomorrow’s release of embargoed images, but that is not an adequate defense for the event we experienced.
Why is that relevant? Who gives a damn about the presentation, right? The picture is here!
Some astronomers, however, weren’t too fond of it.
It’s important to contrast this image with one that was released by Hubble in 2004. Things were different when the Hubble Space Telescope took the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, which is its deepest image of the universe. A press conference was held by the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI), the organization in charge of running both the telescope and Webb.
It was a significant moment for astronomy and science in general, and it was a significant moment for science because we had outstanding science communicators explaining the findings. We received a PowerPoint that, regrettably, used Comic Sans, but we also had access to a broad overview of the development of the universe. Diagrams. You name it, STScI had an explainer.
We can ensure that the stories that are created after the revelation are factually accurate and truly engaging by providing this additional context. It might be challenging to tell the two apart if I showed you images from Hubble and Webb without someone pointing out the differences. Yes, Webb’s debut photograph stands out on its own; it is stunning and immediately arresting. Even if you’re not particularly interested in space, you can almost feel the indescribable void when you look at it. But in the Webb press conference, the truly amazing details were blatantly ignored.
Despite the fact that federal funding for basic research has not increased at a rate that keeps up with increases in research and development funding from other sectors, the attendees at the White House sat alone at socially distant desks and delivered speeches about investing in science and the “spirit of American ingenuity” (federal funding declined from 31 percent in 2010 to 20 percent in 2019). Instead of science communication, it was PR. I don’t want to turn this into a political issue because it isn’t. It’s a matter of lost opportunities.
The discussion of gravitational lensing was absent. What about some close-up shots of the oddball galaxies that fill the picture? Can someone please come in and compare this to the Hubble images of this area of space?
The deep field image being revealed by Biden was like having your uncle announce the birth of your new daughter. But he doesn’t recognize the name. maybe the weight. or when it got there. He may still be curious and interested, even though he still loves the baby, but it’s not The Moment for that, is it?
And regrettably, we cannot have The Moment back. Something depressing about that. something that dulls the luster of a historical event that changed the universe. That much is at stake with the image. Even though the reveal wasn’t a huge deal, it still is.
Thankfully, we essentially get a second chance. At 7:30 a.m. PT the following day, NASA will release four additional Webb images. A livestreamed briefing featuring numerous Webb’s project scientists from NASA, the European Space Agency, and STScI will take place after the live broadcast.
That’s much better, now.