Column: First light

Published 10:24 am Wednesday, July 13, 2022

I was not a very good grade school student, per se. My baseball skills, airplane and rocket building techniques along with my ability to blow a house fuse on cue with my train set were never a vital component of my school’s curriculum. I had teachers who often told me to “get my head out of the clouds” and one in particular who routinely accused me of “stargazing” in the classroom.  Maybe spelling class was not a good time for stargazing or imagining Neil and Buzz walking on the moon. I will concede on that one, but as an adult is there something to be learned from all that looking up in wonder I did as a kid? Maybe you were a stargazer, too?

I remember my father always comparing things to putting man on the moon. He would say, “we put man on the moon, but we can’t make a car’s power window work for more than 3 years,” or a refrigerator for 4 years or a TV that gets good UHF reception (I’m dating myself).  His point was simply that we have the ability to fix and solve many of life’s puzzles when we put our collective minds to it.  

This week we may have come very close to replacing the “man on the moon” comparison phrase with “first light.” The first color images from the James Webb Space Telescope have come to fruition and are giving us a peek into our past. That past is 13 billion years ago, the time it took for this “first light” to be captured by the infrared telescope that is about 1 million miles from Earth. The Webb is operating in an absolute zero environment (-459.67 F) behind an unfolded 21.3 foot mirror capable of detecting infrared light from the era when “stars began ‘turning on’ in the wake of the Big Bang” according to NASA. Thousands of galaxies can be seen in these images. And, to put things further into perspective, the image slice is comparable to a person’s outstretched arm holding a grain of sand.  

When I think about the determination, the many setbacks and the minor victories it must have taken to achieve such a scientific accomplishment, “first light” becomes a true motivator for me to help fix those things 13 billion years closer to home. As a community grappling with tax hikes, affordable housing, potholes and the many other things needing repair, we should understand there is so much we can accomplish if we can set common goals, work together, know there will be setbacks, but be ready to celebrate our minor victories as we make our way to our very own “first light.” I think most of us could benefit from a few minutes of stargazing each day.