Children are scientists in a primordial world. In those first years they’ll learn the laws of gravity, the shapeless flow of time, the first principles of love. Everything must be discovered, from peanut butter to rainstorms, and all things may as well be magic. And then, as children age, magic is stolen from them. It’s slow for some, and faster for many who feel the weight placed on the color of skin or the balance of a bank account. The vibrant world desaturates. The tooth fairy was a lie, days are long but life is short, and dreams are harder to achieve than advertised. We grow unimpressed and disappointed. We disconnect from life on Earth to inhabit small rectangles of glass, the screen our new horizon. That magical world fades away.
Each day that passes brings fewer things to discover, save for some rare moments. Today is one. As unveiled by President Joe Biden in a special presentation from the White House, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has now seen light from the edge of time, delivering the deepest-yet infrared view of the cosmos. Captured by directing JWST’s lingering gaze toward a region of space known as SMACS 0723, this triumphant first image shows starlight in its infancy, and galaxies coalescing from primeval chaos. We—meaning not only NASA and the European and Canadian space agencies, but also humanity at large—built the telescope to tell the story of the cosmos in its becoming, and all of us are part of that story. Yet amid so many more urgent battles on Earth, be they viral pandemics, invading armies or rising oceans, it’s worth asking if there are other reasons to build telescopes, and why we fund costly pursuits of celestial discovery.
I believe it’s to seek the magic we all once lost. We build telescopes and probes and rovers because they are drawn in crayon by kids worldwide whose beds are starships. NASA shows them that starships are real; for one has flown past the surface of Pluto, returning images that will be taped onto bedroom walls all around the world. Telescopes show them that amid the inequity and hardship of life on Earth, we can point glass to the dark and find kingdoms of stars and citadels of light. Children will paint nebulae with brushes dipped in every color. They’ll wonder what wonders lie within, how large the Earth is in comparison, and if there might be alien worlds forming around those infant suns.
A child will be inspired to pursue science because that new Hubble image is not just a galaxy but proof of the magic of nature. They’ll grow, learn, teach and build microscopes and telescopes and particle colliders to show the next generation how we wrest meaning from the relentless march of time. Transformative science is almost beside the point. Wonder is the engine of human progress.
And sure, there are good arguments for why telescopes are investments in national leadership and security. We build them to spot that life-ending asteroid that may already be inbound to Earth. We build them to push outward on what new and evolving technologies allow, to present challenges overcome by human ingenuity, and to spark inventions whose benefits are manifold and lasting. The construction and use of ground- and space-based telescopes is a bridge across decades for our nation, with benefits in every state. They prevent evaporation of talented national workforces, and transfer vital technical knowledge from one generation to the next. And mighty telescopes are among our highest-return investments in soft power. It’s that ephemeral thing on which nations collectively spend trillions: the idea that the best propaganda isn’t propaganda, as Joseph Nye says. It’s hospital ships filled with food and water, or the first image of a black hole on the front page of newspapers in Moscow. It’s understanding that true global leadership isn’t forged by forcing other nations to follow the whims of an empire, but rather by finding ways to work together toward the collective betterment of life on Earth.
The launch of JWST lifted weary gazes to the stars this past December. It was a moment that reminded us of a world united in awe, watching Apollo 11 in 1969. Few now frame the mission as two humans setting foot on the moon. We say that we landed on the moon. All of us. One Giant Leap. It feels this way because the pursuit of discovery is mortar for a fractured society. Today, let us say that we built the telescope that now brings wonder to our world.
JWST has brought us the first light of cosmic dawn. We must now act to ensure it’s not the twilight of our ability to explore it. Ground-based astronomy is in peril, facing narrowing budgets and crowded skies. By 2045, our fleet of spaceborne observatories will have exceeded their most optimistic lifetimes. Our age of cosmic discovery will have ended, and the U.S. will cede leadership to other nations. But it need not end this way: a new report from the National Academy of Sciences has laid out a daring vision for the future of discovery. It recommends construction of a new fleet of Great Observatories, along with revolutionary new telescopes on Earth, in an urgent national pursuit of what would be the greatest discoveries in history: How does the universe work? How did we get here? Are we alone? Yes, it will take modest annual growth in the National Science Foundation and NASA budgets over the next decade. But these will be investments in wonder; a promise to the next generation of explorers that nature is as magical as they once believed.
You can barely see the stars from most cities nowadays. They’re dimmed by the light-polluted haze and confused with swarms of satellites. Children look up and wonder what lies beyond. We build telescopes to show them, and to bring magic to their hearts. We build telescopes to look at all those distant worlds and decide that ours is the one worth fighting for. Telescopes teach us to find signal in an age of noise. To look into the dark and find so much light within.
This is an opinion and analysis article, and the views expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of Scientific American.