For those who missed it yesterday

Here’s that image from the NASA press release yesterday.

That’s spectacular, even as reduced for the blog. You can see the whole full sized image at NASA.

What’s amazing about it is that the gravitational lensing is so obvious that even a biologist can see it. Notice those stretched and curved galaxies that form a kind of whorl around the center of the image? That’s not a camera artifact, it’s caused by a galaxy in the foreground bending light making the 4 billion light-year trek from the source to the telescope. This is beautiful stuff. Phil Plait explains it far better than I can, even if in that article he’s using a blurry image from Hubble. Blurry compared to this one, that is.

Unfortunately, I didn’t learn that from the press conference. I picked it up from all the astronomers and physicists talking about it on Twitter. The press conference was incompetence personified.

After 45 minutes of waiting with the most irritating hold music NASA could produce, the screen opened on a group of people with a poorly resolved black square in the background, the image above. You couldn’t see much of anything, because most of the screen space was dedicated to making sure you could see the old people talking about it. Kamala Harris and Joe Biden said some platitudes that mainly amounted to being so proud that the speckled black square in the distance was the product of American ingenuity, while NASA Administrator Bill Nelson talked about how very far away those lights were. It was soul-deadening stuff that told me nothing about what I was looking at. See that short paragraph about lensing that I scribbled out above? Pitiful as it is, that says far more about the image than anything in the press conference.

I watched a little bit of NASA TV before they put me on ear-grating hold, and one thing I learned is that a bunch of engineers, politicians, and administrators are terrible at putting on a show. I’ve seen better production values from amateurs (not me, of course, I suck) putting home-produced videos on YouTube. They also seem to think that crackly fuzzy flattened audio on everything makes them sound authentic.

A suggestion to NASA: next time you advertise a dramatic reveal of some gorgeous discovery, tell all the bureaucrats to stay home. Don’t book any of the politicians, who won’t know what they’re looking at, and will think it’s reasonable to delay the whole event for some other issue of statecraft (they should do that, and shut up about science). Instead, bring on a small team of scientists who will express their blissful joy at what they see, and will help us understand why this is so cool.

That’s Science Communication 101. NASA doesn’t get it. It’s a bit embarrassing how bad they are at it.


  1. snarkrates says

    Unfortunately, this is the price one pays to do “Big Science”. JWST got so big that it actually became a Congressional line item. Up until about 2012, it was actually in danger of being shit-canned like the Superconducting SuperCollider (SSC). We might well have lost it if not for Senator Barbara Mikulski, who didn’t understand the science worth shit, but did understand that it was a lot of high-tech jobs in Maryland.

    They’re making a huge deal out of the release today at Goddard–which is why I’m working from home today.

    I worked on this project for 20 years–almost all of my career at NASA. It really was a very interesting project. It brought together a bunch of very talented, dedicated engineers and scientists and some fascinating technologies. For example, the HgCdTe detectors have the proportions of Hg and Cd vary so they absorb infrared light in the right wavelength band. The problem is that it was such a huge project that it took for fricking ever to get it off the ground! A lot of the technology in that bird is 20 years old! But a lot of the technology on Hubble was from the 80s! Again, that’s another thing about Big Science. It takes forever to get results. But sometimes the results are worth the wait.

  2. moarscienceplz says

    This would have been the perfect time for Neil DeGrasse Tyson to walk out from behind a curtain.
    Yeah, even after more than six decades of existence, NASA still doesn’t seem to get that putting fancy hardware into space is not their job #1. That is job #2. Job #1 is getting American taxpayers and future American taxpayers EXCITED about fancy hardware in space.
    NPR did about a 3 minute segment on this, and in that short amount of time they at least touched on why the JWST is so much better than Hubble, why this photo needed to be captured in infrared (with a quick nod to cosmic inflation), and they got in a good quote from a female astronomer about why she is so excited to start working with it. Not too bad for 3 minutes with no video content.

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    That’s not a camera artifact, it’s caused by a galaxy in the foreground bending light making the 4 billion light-year trek from the source to the telescope.

    No, it’s caused by a cluster of galaxies (SMACS J0723.3-7327) about 5 billion light years away. The stretched/curved galaxies are much further away.

  4. says

    I watched a little bit of NASA TV before they put me on ear-grating hold, and one thing I learned is that a bunch of engineers, politicians, and administrators are terrible at putting on a show

    I think NASA has had that problem for a long time.
    I have an old VHS tape NASA put out as a documentary on the Apollo 11 mission. Lots of shots out the window of the command module, showing earth, moon, approaching LEM, all that stuff. Long sequences with very little motion, all set to a soundtrack of sparse, high-pitched beep-boop atonal music. They took one of the great events of the 20th century and rendered it unwatchable.
    I wonder if this is the legacy of the Apollo project, which saw public interest and funding wane quickly after the first moon landing. Maybe they gave up trying to entertain. Or, perhaps, the insular, in-group thinking has them still hearing echoes of their successes in the 1960s, and they’re just basically tone deaf when it comes to PR.
    But they can still do some nice work.
    Pictures like this, with galaxies out the ying-yang, always make me think of the Total Perspective Vortex. The idea that humankind is the Crown of Creation goes beyond absurdity when confronted with this. But for so many of the provincial, parochial mindset, the scale of things simply escapes them.

  5. Doc Bill says

    Because smart people comment here, if you have a stretched galaxy or if you have both parts, can you model the original galaxy?

    Similar to modeling seismic reflections in geology.

  6. Rob Grigjanis says

    Doc Bill @6: In the Phil Plait article linked by PZ (with a different galactic cluster)

    Using models of the cluster mass — how the stars and galaxies are distributed in the cluster — the astronomers who took this image can determine more about the lensed galaxy, including the distance. They can tell it’s a disk galaxy; flattened, like the Milky Way. It also has a bulge, a central roughly spherical region of stars. The ages of stars and their chemical abundances (how much of various elements they have in them like oxygen, iron, carbon, and more) can also be found, giving a lot of information about its history.

    Without the lensing this would be impossible; the galaxy is too small and too far away for even Hubble to see much. The magnifying effect of the lens (both making it bigger and brighter) is what made this possible.

  7. Dennis K says

    This smaller image, as awesome as it is, does not do the source image justice. There’s a lot going on in there!

  8. rabbitbrush says

    NASA’s presentation this morning was JUST AS AWFUL! And some of those were scientists speaking. Blab blab blab in front of the beautiful imagery that had dark lines criss-crossing through it. What th’? And such dopey dopey script. They need to stick to creating and operating telescopes. I had to turn it off. I’ll just go to their website to see the pretty pictures with explanations. Jeebus, that was terrible.

  9. birgerjohansson says

    FYI the angular “area” of the full moon covers at an average a million galaxies, if we include those visible to the Hubble Deep Field images (the new ones may have even more).
    Re gravitational lensing- I am more interested in the closer ones, -gravitational microlensing- as the lensing of a background star can reveal a planet in the lensing star system as a tiny bump in the light curve, revealing planets too small to detect by other means. This can give us a statistical knowledge of how common planets of various size classes are, and how often they can exist in binary systems.

  10. seachange says

    #3 @moarscienceplz

    Uergggh… The explosions of the space shuttles and other project failures that did get funded show -to me- that they really should concentrate on getting stuff into space. The intraplanetary probes that they have launched did really well, and correct information about them did …eventually… get out to the interested public and then the public.

    It is perhaps a truth that most people commenting here and PZ himself are being overcritical based on their own excitement and knowledge and as a consequence of this they are expecting people to -not be people-. If politicians and bureaucrats are openly aligning themselves with science for once, isn’t this a good thing?

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