Deep Space Field
5 Lessons of Attention
NASA recently released the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope.
As you may have heard me say, Justin is obsessed with space. Obsessed. It is all he wants to talk about. It is all his little autistic brain seems to want to think about. Space is very, very important to him.
While that can be a drag sometimes (if I have one more conversation about what I think happens when you fall in a black hole I might scream into a pillow), the rest of us have also learned an enormous amount about space, space exploration and the work of astronauts and astronomers.
Work like the James Webb Space Telescope.
The JWST is the most sophisticated telescope ever created and should be operational for the next 20 odd years. During that time, scientists believe that we will gather more data and gain more knowledge of space and our deep history than we have collectively gathered to this point in our history. The JWST is that powerful. NASA recently released a small handful of pictures to show just what the JWST was capable of. One was a deep space field.
The deep space field was an invention of the Hubble Space Telescope. While not the first space-based telescope, the Hubble was the largest at the time of its launch and has remained a remarkably versatile and powerful scientific tool. One of the teams working with Hubble had an idea. Why not focus the lens on a single point in space and just... pay attention... for an extended period. So that is what they did. And the images that returned were remarkable.
The Hubble deep space field revealed new galaxies, galaxy structures and compositions, and hinted at the earliest days of the universe. This deep space field generated thousands of research opportunities for academic astronomers and fired the imagination of even casual observers.
The Hubble had limitations though. Its instruments were not as robust or sensitive as technology would allow even 5 years later. The Hubble's position relatively close to the earth means that it was subject to much greater interference. And there were the nearly catastrophic early mirror issues that almost prevented the Hubble from becoming operational.
None of these limitations affect the JWST, so, one of the first things the JWST team did was take a deep space field image.
To take a deep field image, the telescope is trained on a single dark point in space. To the naked eye - even the human eye through a telescope - this point looks like black space. The same black space that fills the night sky. The telescope focuses on this blank space and just... pays attention. In the case of Hubble, the telescope was left there for days, even weeks, at a time. JWST was able to extract more information than Hubble in just about 12 hours.
For approximately 12.5 hours, JWTS focused on an area of blank space near galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, approximately 4.6 billion years from Earth. This is a dark and distant part of the universe inconceivably distant from us. And what JWST saw was jaw dropping.
The galaxies pictured above are some of the oldest ever captured. Some are 13 billion years old - meaning that they were born within half a billion years or so of the Big Bang.
What is even more stunning is some of what scientists discovered about these galaxies.
It is important to remember that when a telescope like the JWST takes a sample of space, what we see is not a picture of the universe as it is, but a picture of the universe as it was. The galaxies we see that are 13 billion years old look vastly different now than they did then. They may have collided, expanded, or even been pulled into a black hole and their death. We would have no way of knowing. At least not for another 13 billion years. These galaxies are so far away that it takes their light that long to reach us. The night sky is full of historical documents. What we see as reality is simply the remnants of what has already happened.
In the case of these ancient galaxies, the history is remarkable. Scientists assumed that these early galaxies would be small, irregular, and diffuse. That they would be immature. What the JWST showed instead was large, well-formed and seemingly mature galaxies whose histories bumped up against the Big Bang. What does this mean? No one really knows, and the search for answers continues.
And all this just from paying attention for 12 hours or so.
What lessons can we learn about attention from the JWST and Hubble? From deep space fields? What is important about the art and the act of paying attention?
Attention makes no assumptions.
Deep space fields are incredible scientific tools because they make no assumptions. The telescope is pointed in one direction and it just watches. It is not watching for anything in particular. It is not looking for a specific outcome. It is simply watching for what is. It has no vested interest. It's just a telescope.
When we truly pay attention, we have no interest in the outcome. We are just listening, watching, feeling. We go where the evidence takes us. When we have a vested interest, a hope for a specific outcome, a goal, then we aren't really paying attention. We are simply looking for data that confirm our hypothesis. Anything that doesn't fit our outcome gets ignored.
Anyone can pay attention. Most of us don't.
Paying attention is one of those things that sounds easy. And in a sense, it is. It is something that we all have the capacity to do. We can all focus our attention, even if it is only for a few seconds. We do it every day. And at the same time, paying sustained attention - deep focus - is something much harder.
It's harder because we are frequently more interested in what we want than what the universe has for us. We are unwilling to be surprised. We look for what we want rather than seeing what really is.
It's harder because we allow noise to overwhelm us, for distractions to claim us. It's hard to pay attention, even when we know that it will be rewarded.
Attention requires intention.
The Hubble was built in the 1970s. Its initial launch was scheduled for 1983, but delays and challenges in the project (and the 1986 Challenger disaster) pushed the launch to 1990. The Hubble was in space for 3 years while engineers worked furiously to fix a mirror issue that caused aberrant data. The Hubble first captured a deep space field in 1995. The image above - the Hubble Ultra Deep Field - was captured in 2004, over 30 years from when construction of the telescope began.
Don't let anyone ever tell you that astronomers aren't focused and patient people.
You don't "just" pay attention. Attention requires focus. It requires patience. It requires intention. It requires holding space. It requires letting go. It requires being completely in the moment in which we find ourself. It requires overcoming distraction and working through challenges.
Attention is precious.
Something that I hear sometimes is that it "doesn't cost anything to pay attention." That's bullshit.
There is not a financial cost to paying attention. But it does come with a cost. It costs us time. It costs focus. It costs availability. And these are not small costs.
In fact, I would argue that in the modern world these things cost more than we think. One of the greatest commodities we have is our attention. What we pay attention to matters. It matters to us. It matters to this around us. And it matters to our communities.
If you want proof that what we pay attention to matters, look no further than the lengths that governments and businesses will go to track us, quantify us, and segment us.
If attention wasn't precious social media wouldn't exist. You wouldn't be reading this.
Attention is holy.
I saw an interview with one of the scientists on the Hubble team. He was talking about when they first synthesized the images from the Hubble in the mid-90s. As he spoke, his voice caught and his eyes filled with tears. The interviewer asked him why he was so emotional. "Because," the scientist said, "I knew that when we looked at these data we were looking at the fingerprints of God."
When we are fully present in a moment - especially a moment with someone else - we are in a sacred location. There is something holy about holding space for someone else by paying complete attention.
When we pay attention we are able to see and hear the thing that we are paying attention to. Not our assumptions about that thing. Not our expectations. Not our hopes or our fears. Just the reality of what is. What a gift that we have the ability to give. And what a gift to receive.
Have you ever been seen? Have you ever felt truly heard? It is a remarkable feeling. And it is something we can feel, and something we can help others feel.
All we have to do is pay attention.
American psychologist and philosopher William James famously said that experience is what we attend to. Our attention drives our reality. When people tell me that their reality is x, y, or z, my next question is usually about attention. How they spend their time. What their passion is. Then we can look at whether there is alignment between the two. And if not, why.
Our attention is precious and holy. It makes no assumptions. Paying attention is simple, but not easy. It requires our intention.
And when we give our attention it can shift our understanding of everything. Even the foundations of the universe.
May it ever be so.
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