Cosmic Visions: Contemplating our Place in the Cosmos

Cosmic Visions creates opportunities to probe the history, philosophy, politics, and aesthetics of the humanistic and scientific view of our cosmos.

On Christmas Day 2021, the James Webb Space Telescope blasted off from Europe’s Spaceport, situated in French Guiana. It was the start of a month long journey to its special viewing point far beyond the moon, nearly a million miles away. A new era of astronomy was at hand.

Meanwhile, back here on Earth, Krieger School faculty members William Egginton and Karen ní Mheallaigh were keeping close watch. In celebration of the telescope’s flawless launch atop a French-built rocket, they shared a brief text exchange in French: “Décollage! Joyeux Noël l’humanité!!” pinged Egginton shortly after the 7:20 a.m. liftoff. To which ní Mheallaigh replied: “Le trajectoire est nominale…” (“Lift off! Merry Christmas humanity!!” and “The trajectory is nominal,” which is to say, the rocket is moving exactly as planned.)

Such close attention to far-off feats in astrophysics so early on Christmas morning may seem unusual for two dedicated Hopkins humanists. Egginton holds the Decker Professorship in the Humanities and chairs the Department of Modern Languages and Literatures, while ní Mheallaigh (pronounced neh-VAL-ee) is the Andrew W. Mellon Professor in the Humanities and chairs the Department of Classics. But both recognized the occasion as something transcending the advance of astronomy, and also solidifying an idea they had been discussing for a unique research opportunity to bring science and the humanities together in conversation about the nature of existence itself.

They decided to call their project Cosmic Visions, an initiative to probe the history, philosophy, politics, aesthetics, and science of humanity’s view of the cosmos. Their “mission” for Cosmic Visions was ambitious in scope: to advance understanding of how discoveries in space shape beliefs and practices on Earth, and how those mindsets in turn affect our view of the universe, the questions we ask concerning humankind’s role in it, and what we expect to find.

A Collision of the Stars

Almost from the start, ní Mheallaigh and Egginton saw in each other kindred spirits and able partners in humanities scholarship that would be inspired by the Webb’s images.

Their meeting, collaboration, and friendship were due, recalls Egginton, “to a sort of collision of the stars.” The Irish-born ní Mheallaigh was educated at Trinity College Dublin and held a faculty position at the University of Exeter prior to joining Hopkins in 2020. That same year she published The Moon in the Greek and Roman Imagination, an exploration of how the Earth’s near neighbor was understood by the ancients through the lenses of myth, literature, science, and philosophy. Writing the book interested her in how astrophysics infiltrates poetry and how poetry helped shape astrophysical thought from the ancients to the present day. However, she was unable to find purchase for the idea within her academic sphere.

Until, that is, she was recruited to Hopkins. “I was talking about this with my soon-to-be program chair, and he said, ‘You have got to talk to Bill [Egginton]! He will know how to make something happen.’ So he put me in touch with Bill.” The two began imagining how the Krieger School’s world-class faculty in astrophysics and the humanities could be brought together to talk and learn from one another. The James Webb Space Telescope, they thought, would serve as the perfect bridge.

Several months later the Provost’s Office announced the winners of the 2022 Johns Hopkins Discovery Awards, financial grants meant to support interdisciplinary teams poised to make important discoveries or creative works. That year’s announcement called particular attention to “fusing the humanities and sciences to better understand our place in the universe.” Cosmic Visions, one of the recipients, was up and running.

Karen ní Mheallaigh

Before we had the photographic tradition, we had the thought experiment tradition, which goes right back to Plato and [a] passage of the Phaedo, where for the first time, somebody invites readers to imagine what our world looks like from a cosmic distance.”

—Karen ní Mheallaigh

The Blue Marble

2024, in a windowless classroom in Ames Hall, ní Mheallaigh is leading a dozen students in her Ancient Cosmology class through a close examination of Plato’s Phaedo.

This morning’s reading takes the class to Athens in the year 399 BCE. Just hours before he is to die, Socrates offers his companions his own vision of the cosmos. He describes the Earth as a sphere suspended in the heavens, elaborately patterned and divided into colors. “One part is sea-purple of marvelous beauty, another of gold, and the white is whiter than snow,” he says, its surface an uninterrupted pattern “gleaming in a variety of other colors.”

In the handout ní Mheallaigh provides, just below the reading, there is an instantly familiar photograph of our planet. “This is an extraordinary passage,” she tells the class. “It’s actually the first time in the history of Western literature that we have this visualized planetary consciousness. And it’s not accidental that I’ve put here one of the most famous photographs ever taken—the so-called ‘Blue Marble’ photograph of the whole Earth which was taken in 1972 by the crew of Apollo 17.” It is eerily similar to Socrates’ description of the planet made more than 2,300 years earlier.

“This photograph was enormously influential in congealing a global planetary consciousness,” says ní Mheallaigh. “A lot of protests against war and against environmental degradation in the ’60s and the ’70s were really galvanized by this. So, we have to ask: Why do you imagine a photograph had such an effect on Earth consciousness?”

The Apollo 17 crew captured this now-iconic view of Earth as they traveled to the moon in 1972, echoing Socrates’ description of the planet made over 2,300 years earlier.

In much the way the James Webb Space Telescope’s images offer us a new mental construct of the vastness of space, the opportunity to look back at the Earth presents a perspective both evocative and philosophically challenging. “Before we had the photographic tradition, we had the thought experiment tradition, which goes right back to Plato and this passage of the Phaedo, where for the first time, somebody invites readers to imagine what our world looks like from a cosmic distance,” ní Mheallaigh notes to her students. “And from that distance—they don’t have cameras, but they’re imagining—it would look like a ball. And not just any old ball, but one that is beautiful, colorful. Socrates talks about swathes of purple and white and gold and gleaming water. And he was right. Indeed, that’s one of the things that the Apollo astronauts commented on, again and again, was how the only colored object in the whole space was the Earth.”

After the class, first-year student Virankha Peter says she wants to study cognitive science as well as classics, which is one reason she took the course. “I do believe there’s a tie between scientific study and any kind of work in humanities, especially now as we’re moving into AI and talking so profoundly about what it means to be a human being,” she says. “Science has existed for lots and lots of years, but it came out of philosophy. And even if Aristotle and Plato didn’t get everything right, what matters is that they asked the questions that were important then and that we’re asking today.”

Peter is working with ní Mheallaigh to plan an undergraduate research workshop called “Representations of the Cosmos” next year.

Science has existed for lots and lots of years, but it came out of philosophy. And even if Aristotle and Plato didn’t get everything right, what matters is that they asked the questions that were important then and that we’re asking today.”

—Virankha Peter ’27

A Big Contextualization

In July 2022, the debut photograph taken from the Webb telescope was a breathtaking full-color image of the 4.6-billion-year-old galaxy cluster SMACS 0723. For Egginton, it represents what Cosmic Visions is all about.

Ask him to condense the rather lofty aspirations of their program into a 10-second elevator pitch and this is what he says: “We’re using scientific discovery and humanistic disciplines to interrogate the all-important question of how humans consider their place in the cosmos. Because now that humanity is receiving images from the outer limits of the cosmos and the beginnings of space time, what’s really needed is a big contextualization about what those images actually mean. How do we make sense of them?”

 Webb telescope’s spectacular debut image of the 4.6-billion-year-old galaxy cluster SMACS 0723.
credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

Webb telescope’s spectacular debut image of the 4.6-billion-year-old galaxy cluster SMACS 0723.

The three-year grant provided by the Discovery Award, combined with additional funding from Hopkins’ Alexander Grass Humanities Institute, enables the Cosmic Visions program to host an annual conference, bringing humanists and scientists together on the Homewood campus to focus on discoveries and questions arising from the work of the Webb Telescope. Intending that the ideas and insights generated by Cosmic Visions will move beyond academic discourse to touch a wider audience, Egginton and ní Mheallaigh have produced a 10-episode podcast and are leading ongoing research and teaching events. The project is sponsoring a Webb-themed art competition among Baltimore City public school students to be unveiled this spring; and later this year, a new academic journal, Journal for the History of Cosmological Thought, will publish its first issue.

Of all these efforts, it is the Cosmic Visions conference held in April of each year that seems to throw off the most intellectual sparks, perhaps because of the wide range of disciplines and profoundly different outlooks that are brought together. “Usually, if people say, ‘Oh, I do interdisciplinary work,’ that just means there’s somebody who works on the Middle Ages working with somebody working on the Renaissance. But for this project, they’re really people who went to completely different parts of academia, and converge at this conference,” says classics PhD candidate Yanneck Wiegers, part of the team supporting the Cosmic Visions program.

The Science Behind Cosmic Visions

It is no mystery why the Webb telescope is the basis for Cosmic Visions—it’s a very precise, scientific tool being used to explore the vast unknown that humans have pondered for centuries.

The Webb does not use a conventional lens to focus and record visible light. Instead, it looks at infrared radiation, the long wavelengths of light that are invisible to the human eye but we can feel as heat (as from a bathroom ceiling warming light). Infrared has the distinct advantage of moving more efficiently through cosmic clouds and debris as its longer wavelengths don’t as frequently collide with and get scattered by densely packed particles. In the infrared spectrum there is simply more of the universe to see.

This means the Webb is exquisitely sensitive to heat, which is why it sits so far out in space, shielded by an enormous screen that blocks even the tiniest traces of light and heat from the sun or reflecting off the Earth and moon. This, plus an electrically powered cryocooler, brings the telescope’s instruments to a final operating temperature of minus 447 degrees Fahrenheit—only 12 degrees above absolute zero. It is from this vantage the Webb peers into the farthest reaches of space.

And not just of space, but also of time itself.

The Webb’s infrared focus enables it to see some of the farthest and oldest light sources in the universe, looking back toward the very beginnings of the universe and the start of time as we understand it.

Our Story May Be Starting to Unravel

“A feature of physics is that it tries its best to describe reality, but that picture is always changing a little bit,” says astrophysicist Sean Carroll, who works with Egginton and ní Mheallaigh and has been a participant in past Cosmic Vision conferences. Carroll is the Homewood Professor of Natural Philosophy, holding joint appointments in the Krieger School’s William H. Miller III Department of Physics and Astronomy and the William H. Miller III Department of Philosophy.

“But there’s no place that is more immediately viscerally exciting and thrilling and mind-blowing than astronomy and cosmology and physics. They encompass ideas and concepts that are hard to wrap your head around. You know: has the universe existed forever, or was there an earliest moment in time? So it can always be tricky to figure out what physics is actually saying about the nature of reality. It’s our job to take that into consideration as academics, whether we’re humanists or scientists or whatever. Just because it’s hard and just because not all the questions have been answered yet doesn’t mean we can ignore it.”

Sean Carroll

…it can always be tricky to figure out what physics is actually saying about the nature of reality. It’s our job to take that into consideration as academics, whether we’re humanists or scientists.”

—Sean Carroll

And in just two short years, the Webb has proven itself to be the observer that cannot be ignored. In February of this year, the science journal Nature published a paper indicating the Webb had confirmed the existence of a massive galaxy that formed its stars 13.4 billion years ago—just 400 million years after the creation of the universe. Yet, according to the “Standard Model”—which is the operating theory cosmologists rely upon to describe and predict the fundamental nature of the universe—such a galaxy should not be possible. At that time, according to the Standard Model, the so-called “dark matter,” which has never been directly detected but is thought to comprise nearly a third of the universe, had not assembled in sufficient mass to begin creating stars.

It’s a discovery from the Webb that has been both startling and challenging. When word began circulating in the astrophysical community, two leading researchers took to The New York Times to pen an essay titled “The Story of Our Universe May Be Starting to Unravel,” saying: “based in part on what the [Webb] telescope has revealed, it’s beginning to look as if we may need to rethink key features of the origin and development of the universe.” One of those authors—renowned Brazilian physicist and astronomer Marcelo Gleiser—has been a regular participant at the Cosmic Visions conferences.

Not Owning but Belonging to Planet Earth

Gleiser, who is known for his books, public appearances, and two TV Globo science series watched by more than 30 million viewers, was awarded the $1.4 million Templeton Prize in 2019, an international award honoring a person who has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works. It is precisely this combination of scientific curiosity and humanistic awe in contemplating the universe that drew Gleiser to Cosmic Visions. He gave presentations at the first two conferences, where his most recent talk was titled “Why we are the only humans in the universe and why it matters.”

“Astronomy before and after the invention of the telescope completely changed the questions you could ask, just like biology with the microscope,” he says, in considering how humanity makes tools but tools in turn can remake humanity. “The questions completely changed because of these new tools. And now we have the James Webb Space Telescope that is changing the way we understand how we think about the formation of stars and galaxies. The big hope every time we launch a new instrument is that it will push our knowledge beyond the boundaries of what we know. Right now, this is already happening with the Webb. What it’s doing is sounding an alarm, so to speak, saying, ‘Wake up folks! Maybe there is more stuff going on out there, so you need to pay attention and be open-minded and ready to reconsider certain paradigms that we’ve been using for decades.’ And this is wonderful.”

To Gleiser—and to many associated with Cosmic Visions—the need to rethink the workings of the universe call for a concomitant effort to reimagine our role within it. “So maybe one of the big outcomes that will emerge from these conversations is precisely this new way of positioning ourselves not as owning but belonging to planet Earth. A deepening sense of gratitude, with respect to the fact that without this planet, we wouldn’t be here to tell our own story.”

And that, according to Cosmic Visions investigators, is precisely what they are after. “There’s a very strict scientific level in which the Webb is doing all this phenomenal work,” muses Egginton. “But at the end of the day all of that knowledge has to land somewhere. It has to have an appropriate context born out of the humanities. We want to provoke the kind of Aha! moment where people start to understand it’s vital to have perspectives that come from history, philosophy, literature, imagination, and the arts on big questions like this.”

Cosmic Visions Podcast Offers “Ways of Knowing”

Probably the world’s first work of science fiction was a 1608 novel, in Latin, describing a visit to the moon—written by the great German astronomer Johannes Kepler. Around the year 900, in order to accurately predict the appearance of Venus, the Mayans found it necessary to invent the concept of zero. In the 5th century BCE, Greek philosophers made the profound intellectual leap that objects in the night sky were not just light, but actual solid bodies of rock or other matter.

These and other surprising insights into how humanity has viewed and understood the heavens across the millennia are brought to life in a popular podcast series created as part of the Cosmic Visions project. Produced as Season 2 of Ways of Knowing: An Audio Show About the Humanities, the 10-episode series covers subject matter ranging from Babylonian astrology to Chinese imperial calendars, from space aliens to the influence of Western landscape painting on the creation of photographs from the James Webb Space Telescope. Each episode lasts 12 to 14 minutes and features interviews with humanists and cosmologists, as well as occasional dramatized readings of ancient texts.

Cosmic Visions investigator Karen ní Mheallaigh offers insights into ancient Greek astronomy in one episode, while co-investigator Bill Egginton provides thoughts about how astronomy discoveries of the 1960s were eerily foreshadowed in Dante’s 14th-century masterpiece, The Divine Comedy.

An exploration and a celebration of the spirit of inquiry moving across cultures, civilizations, and thousands of years, the podcast explores how, in understanding the universe, humanity has come to understand itself.