The sweet relief of being a tiny speck in the universe

This is from a recent instalment of Ann Friedman’s great newsletter, about the new images of deep space taken by the new James Webb telescope — images of hundreds of millions of stars and galaxies, whose light has only just reached us after billions of years:

“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena,” wrote Carl Sagan in 1994 about an image of our home planet, seemingly alone in the vastness of space, captured by Voyager 1. “Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light,” he continued. “Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark.” Now we can see, thanks to the mind-bending chaos of deep space revealed by the Webb telescope, that we aren’t alone in a vast cosmic emptiness. We are alone in a crowd.

The “cosmic cliffs” of the Carina Nebula. This image is about 250 lightyears across

But the effect is the same: Our terrestrial problems have been placed in appropriate context once again. “My life is meaningless!” exclaimed my friend Agatha, in a relatable post about the Webb photos. “I’m so relieved!” Is there a word for this feeling? The comfort of knowing you are a brief speck? I feel it when I’m in a deep gorge or at the base of a giant tree. When I connect with a work of art created in a lifetime that never touched my own. When I behold a thumping rave of faraway galaxies as they existed billions of years ago. 

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