During one moment in Telescope, a 40-minute long documentary produced by Discovery, Matt Mountain holds two lenses in his hands. One as big as an ocean clam, the other one tiny, smaller than a fingernail. He holds them apart and talks into the camera. “If you take this lens so that it captures the light, then take the second one and put it in the direction of the ray of light of the bigger lens, you have created a simple device that is called a telescope. That’s all it took. That idea changed the world.”
It was Galileo Galilei who, one night in 1609, built the first telescope and turned it towards the stars. His simple device enabled this wonderful man, a product of the Renaissance, to see the sky 100 times closer than he could with his naked eye. It was one of the first and most important steps towards the kind of science that turned away from the illusions created by the human mind on the basis of simple, natural perception. It was the first look into the eye of God, to observe Him and not just be observed by Him. That telescope, just under a meter long, was enough to prove that Nicolaus Copernicus was right when, 60 years earlier, he intuited that the Earth was not the center of the Universe – a model set by the ancient Greeks. Copernicus thought that the Earth-centric model of the Universe was a complicated one. So, after some thinking, he came up with the hypothesis of the heliocentric system. While Copernicus could not prove his ideas and – in fear of the Church – did not publish his discoveries while he was alive, Galileo’s little gadget enabled him to prove that Copernicus was right. Galileo not only realized that the moon – previously considered a perfect orb – had craters and mountains, but also discovered the four moons of Jupiter that definitively proved the genius of Copernicus. It was Galileo who turned his eye toward the sky, checking the facts.
After showing the film during a live event at the New York Public Library (NYPL) on Wednesday, Matt Mountain discussed this epochal event with the film director Nathaniel Kahn and Paul Holdengraber, the host of NYPL Live:
“It took us 400 hundred years to comprehend what happened after the discovery of the telescope. We are now at the second act. We are now looking for other life in space; we now have the tools to do it. And what is the most important, we now have a map of the Universe, so we know where to look. The question that remains open is whether humanity will have enough will to save itself, to unite the effort and find another living space before our system collapses.”
Mountain is the creator of the biggest telescope the human race has ever built. For more than a decade, NASA has been working on the James Webb telescope, which will be launched into orbit beyond the moon, a million miles away from our planet. Webb will circle Earth with the moon, always hidden on its dark side, where its enormous mirror lenses will be protected from the high temperatures emitted by the sun and the Earth.
“It is one million times stronger than Galileo’s, 100 times stronger than Hubble, which circles much closer to the Earth,” Mountain said. “Webb will be using infrared light, so we will be able to look at the bottom of the Universe, observe the birth and the death of the stars – we will be able to see how galaxies from thirteen billion years ago evolved!”
After these words from the man who is responsible for the perfect functioning of the Webb telescope, a deep silence settled upon the dark Celeste Bartos Forum in the NYPL that night. Our minds ran through the information presented in the documentary. There is no “Plan B” for Webb. It will work or it will be wasted. When Hubble was launched in 1990, it did not work at all. But with a few shuttle missions, astronauts were able to repair it. Webb has only one chance. There is no way that NASA could reach it that far out to repair it. Webb, once in a space, will be completely on its own.
“Hubble was of enormous importance, but with it, our observation of space reached its limit. We needed a stronger telescope in order to better understand the nature of dark matter, and especially dark energy, which we know nothing about.
We think is that dark matter represents 22 percent, and dark energy 74 percent of the Universe that is still expanding. We know only 4 percent of the Universe. We have no idea what dark matter and dark energy are. This is where our science dies, this is the end of physics as we knew it. All that we can do is observe the facts and be humble.”
The weak, hoarse voice stopped again. Mountain had a bad cold, but he even seemed to become emotional. Kahn, the normally talkative filmmaker, went silent, too. The host of the talk, Paul Holdengraber, did not know what to say. So for a good half an hour, the two of them filled the stage with empty words, including irrelevant quotes of Pascal by Holdengraber while Kahn tried to escape into his childhood memories, quoting a Robert Frost poem. An elderly man sitting next to me left the room, saying that this was not a science. Onstage, the talk of spirituality, love and hope continued for a while. Mountain was silent. Until Holdengraber asked him whether all scientists and engineers participating on the Webb project are atheists, nonbelievers. Mountain did not want to talk about this. But in the end, he said that religion is an experience that is completely different from facts.
And then Mountain gave us more facts, just to show us how irrelevant human existence is. We humans, for example, are made of substances that are completely different from what seems to make up the substance of that wall of darkness.
Mountain was focused only on the things he knows. He listed the telescopes that America is building. He mentioned one in Chile, built to observe the sky as a whole, so we will know what might endanger our planet. Another one is being built in the U.S. with the sole purpose of observing the sun. Our star that gives us light and life, but that will be our death when it explodes. Not tomorrow, but sometime in hundred million years. The sun is currently only at 30 percent of its life.
There is plenty of time, but the human race will have to become more aware of its precarious existence and become more humble. Most importantly, we will have to decide whether we want to survive as a species or not. The facts are saying that there are at least 100 septillion planets out there. What humans should be looking for in the next 100 to 1,000 years are so-called exoplanets, which have similar characteristics to our planet.
Telescope is a wake-up call. But the images and words in the documentary, shown and repeated so many times, are much less than what we heard off-camera from the man who could be called a father of modern telescopes. Mountain is already a man from a different universe. With existing telescopes we are getting images of the universe from three million light years ago, and we have no clue what happened there afterwards. With Webb we will be able to see deeper into the space, but we’ll know even less of what is happening there now. It’s all about the time lag information needs to reach us. We are getting smaller every day, Mountain tells us. He laughs at us. He cannot believe that the human race wastes so much time on self-indulgent nonsense. There is so much more out there, and we have just begun to explore it.