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Those Photographs of the Abyss and Me

The images of the dawn of the universe and the work to realize them.

Image from the James Webb Space Telescope | Photo Credits: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

[A reflection from the head of the instrument NIRCAM, the camera on the James Webb Space Telescope -- originally published on euresis.org]


I learned at a young age that to see clearly it is necessary to take a step back. The gray beard of Van Gogh, when viewed closely, is a tangle of purple, orange and green lines. It is the same experience now, that in the midst of the celebrations, explanations and enthusiastic comments of the experts in the news media of the whole world, I find myself bewildered; maybe I am too close to these images.


I left Europe 23 years ago to work on the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), eventually becoming head of the primary instrument. I put together the team, choosing from the best of the best, I was at the console when we exposed the camera, I decided who would analyze the first images, I was in the closed-door meeting where the images were seen for the first time, when we discussed which to choose, what to write in the press release, what name to give them… we prepared together, stressed together, were nervous together, and congratulated ourselves together. Moments of excitement, no weekends, long nights of boredom, always wearing a mask, watching the telemetry come in on four huge monitors, with twenty-four audio channels, waiting alertly. They say that we have done something great, but now we all are tired, and we have the need to rest, along with our families. Almost all of them held up. People talk about “NASA”, but it is clear that individually we are little ones who have given much of ourselves.


Over the toasts and the tiredness looms the photos of the abyss. I know them by memory, proving my point that I am too close. But if I take a step back, I am able to get a glimpse of the splendor of them all. The splendor of the stars and the galaxies, of which I could talk for days, and that of the sacrifice of our time and our work over the years, and our ephemeral lives, spent to understand who we are, where we come from, and the extravagant beauty of reality of which we are only a meager voice.


Massimo, Baltimore, MD

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