If you’re not excited about the Webb telescope images, you should be.
(Yeah, I said it! Should! I am telling you what to do, and I don’t even care if it’s polite. I’m right here. Go look. Seriously.)
They’re pictures of as far away as anyone has ever been able to see, and for that reason, they’re also pictures of as far back as anyone has ever been able to see. (Because light emitted far away has taken a long time to reach Webb to be photographed. Ask your science teacher!)
They’re beautiful. So, to me, is their unfathomability. I want the universe to be deep and unknowable just as strongly as I want to know it deeply. But what what I most love about the Webb images is how they not only depict things we knew about in more detail, they also show many, many things we didn’t even know to look for. (Literally, many of the major scientific findings so far from Webb have been simply background stuff, small things off to the side of or behind something more dramatically centered in the image.)
These discoveries, in addition to being previously obscured by the brighter objects nearby, are challenging all kinds of things we “knew” about the cosmos: when heavier elements began to form, for example, or how many galaxies of what shape appeared when. I love the openness to this fundamental challenge that I see in so many of the scientists interviewed– like astronomer Allison Kirkpatrick of the University of Kansas, who responded to one field-busting finding by saying, “We’re going to have to figure that out.”
That’s the attitude I am trying to take as I experience a similar look at my own past. It’s one thing to deal with my own feelings about having been sexually abused by gymnastics coach/clown/camp games teacher Mike Spiller, which I have had close to 40 years to work on, along with professional help. I’m good! But it’s something new to look at those same memories and feelings, this time with my adult lens and with a completely different set of resources and allies, and see things i hadn’t even known were there. Through these new eyes at this new time, with the help of others looking into Mike Spiller’s past (where it intersects with my own but also beyond that), I see so much more. I see how much bigger the context was. How it fit in to a culture in gymnastics, in Houston, in 1983. How many others were around who had to have known and looked away. The other girls, maybe now grown-ass, pissed-off women like me, who thought we were alone, were believed and/or doubted and/or helped or not. It’s all bigger and broader than it felt when it was a private story. Like looking at your kindergarten class picture, and remembering this kid on the playground and that kid in math class, but also knowing for the first time what each kid was thinking, what was going on at home, how the teacher felt and what all of it showed about that time and place.
That’s what it feels like to be involved, however marginally, in current investigations of the man who sexually abused me when I was a kid. Lots of discoveries, big and small, some answering questions I hadn’t even known to ask. These are accidental discoveries, and some of them are not easy ones. Yet it’s as Dr. Kirkpatrick says: “We’re going to have to figure that out.”
You can have that open-minded feeling of acceptance and curiosity, like she seems to have about the outer space she’s scrutinized for her whole career and like I mostly do about the inner space I have scrutinized just as ardently. I can’t help wanting to hug Dr. Kirkpatrick, or maybe send her a stiff drink. The Nature piece ends:
“With Webb just at the beginning of a planned 20-plus years of work, astronomers know they have a lot of changes ahead. “Right now I find myself lying awake at three in the morning,” Kirkpatrick says, “wondering if everything I’ve ever done is wrong.”