By Michael Caduto
At the Turn of the Year
Although January 1st is day one in the year of the Western (Gregorian) calendar, it is not written in the stars. While New Years Day falls near the winter solstice—which is arguably the more natural day to mark a celestial New Year—it has come to be associated with new beginnings and resolutions that serve as individual and collective opportunities for a fresh start.
Each of us is a unique individual, but we are also just one member of a ballooning human population that now numbers more than 8 billion. Even though we perceive each day as a consequential event during which our experiences focus mostly on the immediate and all-encompassing necessities of human survival and the pursuit of a meaningful life, ours is but an infinitesimal moment—a speck in time as reckoned by the stars. Astronomically speaking, 2023 falls somewhere around 13.8 billion years after the birth of the universe.
Recent images transmitted from the Webb Space Telescope are causing astronomers to reimagine our perceptions of the immense space through which Earth travels at 67,000 miles per hour. Spectacular and awe-inspiring infrared images have been beaming back to Earth following the launch on Christmas Day 2021 by this joint venture of the space agencies in the U.S., Canada and Europe.
The Webb telescope was engineered to reveal regions of space that present a picture of what the universe was like just one billion years ago when stars and galaxies were first beginning to form. Indeed, one galaxy has been reported that corresponds to a time when the universe was a mere infant at 250 million years old. While there are a multitude of beliefs about how the universe formed, as well as the place and time to which humankind traces its roots, we are all children of the cosmic dust that swirls overhead and roils the dynamic geosphere beneath our feet.
How do we reconcile our human perception of the urgency and importance of each day, year and lifetime when weighed in relation to the boundless distances and intervals of space and time that our technology now enables us to perceive and measure? What does it mean to start a “new year” while living in a universe that is pushing 14 billion years old? What is the measure of one life in a world of billions?
Human experience lies somewhere between an awareness that the way we live our individual lives has a profound impact on our home planet, and the humbling perception of being a mere wisp of cosmic dust adrift in a vast sea of time. From the urgency of such issues as fighting climate change and alleviating hunger in the relative short term, to reimagining our perception of reality through the expansive views of art and science, we exist suspended along a continuum that stretches between the present experience of each moment, and the realm of the eternal.
How do we navigate our individual path through each day, meeting needs and desires while reconciling our place in the larger world? In what way is our thinking and decision-making influenced by the ever increasing awareness of our place in the wondrous fastness of the cosmos? What will our New Year’s resolutions be as we enter calendar year 2023, and cosmic year 13.8 billion?
This spectacular image, dubbed “Cosmic Cliffs,” was among the first transmitted to Earth by NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope. It shows individual stars amidst a stellar nursery in the Carina Nebula where nascent stars are emerging. NASA Photo.
WHAT YOU CAN DO: Explore some of the fantastical images first recorded by the Webb Space Telescope, which can be viewed at this link: https://www.nasa.gov/webbfirstimages