The space to see more clearly

Welp. 2021 didn’t really turn out like we might have hoped, did it? Lots of continued Covid-19 and other global problems seemed to dominate the year. Meanwhile, I was busy learning a new job in clinical/translational research and global health. Accordingly, I allowed myself the space I needed to not worry about updating my science blog.

However, I want to thank the many of you who found your way to my older posts during the past year. From book reviews to topical news, almost every day I discovered that someone was viewing something from “Mulled Science” and hopefully finding something they could use. I appreciate your visits and support.

As we start a new year, I am hoping to return here more frequently, but I have many things vying for my attention, so I’ll try to keep things brief and not make too many promises. Perhaps noting a science story from the week that caught my eye, or a book I liked. Or considering a problem from a different angle. But not trying to do too much. 2022 is off to a chaotic start with the omicron variant blazing through my community, among the other potential perils of winter. I feel rather…preoccupied…most days. So, given all that, how should we restart?

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I’m going to lead off 2022 with outer space and my favorite feel-good science story of the new year: the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). This massive engineering project launched on Dec. 25, 2021, and it seems like every astronomer and space enthusiast has been holding their breath through each new stage of cross-check and set-up. I’ve always been a sucker for a successful rocket launch, and I’m as excited as the next lay person about the potential capabilities that this new telescope will have to peer into space—and into our past.

A rare view of the James Webb Space Telescope face-on, from the NASA Goddard cleanroom observation window.
The JWST, under construction, in 2017. (Photo by NASA, public domain)

By being able to detect infrared radiation in space, the telescope will be able to help gather data about the most distant objects in our view and hopefully teach us more about the history of the universe. Alongside the gloriously detailed images from its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, the JWST will add a new generation of technology to our arsenal to understand the space around us even more than before.

This project has been decades in the making and shows off the best part of human ingenuity and curiosity. Want to learn more? You can follow the project on NASA’s JWST website. Want to get involved yourself? You can even make JWST art and submit it to NASA! The sky’s the limit when it comes to envisioning what we can learn in space—with a lot of hard work by dedicated scientists and engineers.

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And yet, we humans can be myopic sometimes in ways beyond the limitations of our eyes. Another recent space story answered of a question that was spurred by low-resolution images of a distant object on the surface of the Moon gathered by the Yutu-2 lunar rover managed by China’s space program. What on Earth (or the Moon) could such a curious cube-shaped thing actually be? After weeks of roving to get closer to the object, new photos by the rover revealed the mystery object to be a very nice, ordinary moon rock. This is not particularly notable, except to remind us that people’s brains are sometimes quick to put together data and information in ways that sometimes, well, don’t always make sense after more investigation reveals more insight. There aren’t unexplained structures on the Moon. Just rocks.

Science often unfolds at a pace that is slower than we would sometimes like it to be. It’s easy to jump to conclusions with incomplete findings, or ones that fit our biases or misconceptions. As Covid has taught us, sometimes we have to be patient and wait for the data to reveal themselves. This can be hard when lives—or a giant telescope’s functionality—are at stake. And when we learn new information that overrides our first ideas, we have to be willing to grow in our knowledge and understanding. Sometimes a blurry, but curiously regular, cube is just a rock.

But, sometimes, new information will upend how we think about ourselves, our communities, our planet, or even our universe. That can be exciting or sometimes scary. Nonetheless, science always gives us something to talk about. As our collective understanding of the natural world expands even more in 2022, I hope our curious and collaborative work will reveal the best of ourselves for years to come.

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Learn more:

Chang, K. “Moon Cube Mystery: Chinese Rover Finds It’s Just a Rock,” New York Times, Jan. 7, 2022.

NASA. “Artemis” (new mission to send crewed spacecraft back to the Moon)

NASA. “Top Ten Facts about the James Webb Space Telescope” (video), Mar. 15, 2019.

Overbye, D. and Roulette, J. “A Giant Telescope Grows in Space,” New York Times, Jan. 8, 2022.

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