In Response to: Long Ago and Far Away

I enjoyed the article on the new discoveries, both present and future, that the Webb Telescope is making possible as well as the profiles of the Princeton faculty and graduate students who are participating in gathering and interpreting this rich store of new information from ever-more-distant views deep into the universe around us (“Long Ago and Far Away,” September issue). 

I reacted to the information paradoxically, feeling both powerful and insignificant. Powerful as a fellow-human to these explorers; insignificant as I pondered the vast, unknowable assemblage of galaxies around us. I realized that we on this Earth inhabit one negligible planet that orbits an insignificant star among the millions of stars in one of the smaller galaxies in this vast and expanding universe. I felt even more tiny while contemplating the time scales on which these systems are discovered. Who are we to know this much? 

But another paradox looms in my mind as well. It would be ironic if, at the very moment our astronomers were discovering so much, we inhabitants of this planet were destroying our own civilization, our web of organizations, accumulated knowledge, and governing skills that has made possible the accumulation of all this scientific knowledge. What if we are stumbling into self-destruction because we are so embedded in our present set of corporate-bureaucratic web of assumptions, routines, competition, and other motives, that we are unable to change them in time to avoid destroying our planet’s environment through climate change?

A recent news article reported that we humans may be exceeding several tipping points in atmospheric warming that, once crossed, cannot be reversed. While I’m personally too old for that to affect my life much, I feel deeply about the prospect because I think humanity is, after all, important — even as I realize how insignificant we are in the context of all that creation and space. 

At my age I can only hope and point to the urgency of changing our institutions and our assumptions fast, as fast as we are learning about the origins of the universe. I do, however, regret that I must leave the design of new systems to those who are participating in them — if they can do it. 

James R. Newcomer ’57
Lake Oswego, Ore.