When the stars came out

The James Webb telescope is an example of collaborative science and human ingenuity

The James Webb telescope is an example of collaborative science and human ingenuity

The dominant story in much of the world today is, as Ayn Rand said of her novel The fountain, the story of ‘individualism versus collectivism, not in politics, but in the soul of man’. In India we also celebrate such an individualism where heroic individuals, through their willpower, strategic vision, perseverance and unique personal qualities, lift society up and, like Nietzsche’s superman, create a new moral order. This new social order will apparently enjoy a higher level of human creativity and human freedom. In this story, individualism has built the modern world.

However, this is only half the story. While Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Stephen Schwarzman, NR Narayana Murthy and Mukesh Ambani have made a significant difference as individuals, as well as countless others who have passed away, there is another perspective that is equally important, but rarely celebrated. Obscured by the dominant narrative, this other narrative applauds the contribution of groups. Working together in partnerships, such groups, by sharing and working together, produce results that are no less beneficial to society. There are no superhumans in this story, only worker bees.

The making of the $9.7 billion James Webb telescope is one such story. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) is one of the most significant technological achievements of recent years, namely construction, transport, launch, alignment and deployment in deep space. teams. Its successful placement in deep space is a defining moment in human history to reach for the stars. A new journey into ‘the soul of man’ has just begun.

Making the telescope

There are four aspects to this other story that are complementary to, and not competing with, that of the superman. These are the ambitions of the project; how it was put together; the technologies involved; and its implications for human society. Together they are an illustrative example of the collective production of a common good.

The James Webb telescope was envisioned by its initiators as the convergence of many advanced technologies. It was intended to enable humanity to look deeper into space and look further back in time. The telescope will give us new knowledge about the origin of the universe. Because it is essentially an infrared spectrum telescope, compared to the Hubble which operated largely in the UV and visible light range, it will allow us to gaze at the beginning of the ‘cosmic dawn’, a period of 250 million years after the big bang as light began to break through the mist cloud and the first stars and galaxies began to form. The JWST takes us about 150 million years further back than Hubble, closer to when it all began.

The project seeks to understand how galaxies form and evolve. It will search for evidence of dark matter, study exoplanets, capture images of planets in our solar system, and other such cosmic curiosities. This knowledge will affect not only the natural sciences, but also the humanities and social sciences as we try to understand our own place in the universe and ask those eternal questions such as: Is there other life in the universe? Will it look like us and, more worryingly, will it look for us? What is the relationship between ‘chance’ and ‘necessity’, to use Jacques Monod’s theorem, in the origin of life? In this ambition, the JWST belongs to the classical tradition of scientific research: the pursuit of fundamental curiosity, untouched by special interests.

The CEO of Northrop Grumman, an aerospace and defense company and the project’s prime contractor, has officially announced that due to the delays and production delays, the company would only make a profit after the successful deployment of the telescope.

Collaborative science

If the ambition of the project was to understand the origin of the universe and our place in it, then the execution of the project was a great product of collective effort. While there were many notable individuals leading the various groups in the project, the emphasis throughout was on its execution by teams working together to fabricate the instruments, make the telescope parts, design the cooling systems, etc. This new collective, existing of free scientists and engineers, worked together with the sole purpose of producing, launching and placing, at the chosen Lagrange point (a point where the gravitational forces of the Earth and the sun are in equilibrium), a telescope lighter than Hubble but six times a mirror had bigger. Compared to Hubble’s location 550 km from Earth, JWST was 1.5 million km away. All parts therefore had to work the first time. There were no second chances. Recent reports from NASA let us know that the deployment and alignment of the mammoth telescope is progressing well and may even “exceed expectations.” The launch of the satellite, on December 25, 2021, was a joint project of NASA, the European Space Agency, the Canadian Space Agency and involved many universities, organizations and companies in 14 countries.

Furthermore, the science and technology deployed should be toasted as a tribute to human ingenuity. Eighteen hexagonal beryllium mirrors first had to be folded to fit the available space in the Arianne rocket and then expanded deep into space to create a single mirror with nanometric precision. For example, one of the instruments has 2,50,000 individually controlled shutters to ensure that only the narrow portion of the sky that is observed can be illuminated. The JWST teams built and installed a near-infrared spectrograph, a near-infrared camera, a slitless spectrograph and, after technical difficulties, a mid-infrared instrument because, unlike the other instruments that need to be cooled to 40 K, it needs to be cooled to 7 K. The successful cryocooler was eventually developed at great expense.

These joint achievements have resulted in an advanced scientific infrastructure for exploring space and opening the door to new scientific knowledge. It has created a new knowledge commons. JWST is operated by the Space Telescope Science Institute (STSI), which has a charter and website that places all relevant information in the public domain and invites scientists from around the world to submit projects. the threshold of producing a huge knowledge commons. The ‘heroic collective’ shares space with the ‘heroic individual’. Hubble gave us breathtaking photos of the infinite sky, such as the Lagoon Nebula. JWST will give us pictures of the sky that Isaac Asimov only imagined in his brilliant science fiction short story nightfall when the stars came out.

(Peter Ronald deSouza is the DD Kosambi Visiting Professor at Goa University)

SOURCE – www.thehindu.com

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