God’s backyard

Justine Toh ponders the breathtaking, glorious new images of distant galaxies from NASA's James Webb telescope.

We just got a glimpse into deepest time – and it is glorious.

An image of starlight more than 13 billion years old, transmitted from the James Webb Space Telescope, has just been released by NASA, allowing us a peek of the universe not long after the Big Bang.

Those points of light on the image aren’t stars, but entire galaxies stuffed with billions of stars. All billions of light years away from the corner of the cosmos we inhabit. It’s breath-taking.

NASA chief Bill Nelson dialled up the wonder further. “If you held a grain of sand on the tip of your finger at arm’s length, that is the part of the universe that you’re seeing,” he said.

“Just one little speck of the universe.”

This year also happens to mark the 25th anniversary of Contact. The film’s opening scene alone is a fitting companion piece to today’s image release: a grand tour of the galaxy that starts from earth and moves through seemingly infinite star systems.

Contact stars Jodie Foster as a radio astronomer searching for alien life and Matthew McConaughey as, perhaps improbably, a faith advisor to the White House. She’s a sceptic, he’s a believer. They spar over the supposed conflict between science and religion. They also fall in love.

In New York Magazine’s retrospective on the movie, the filmmakers wanted McConaughey’s character to finally admit that “my God was too small” – meaning that science outmatched his God.

But McConaughey wasn’t keen on the line because, as he said, “my belief has always been that science is the practical pursuit of God.”

And given the wonders of the universe we’ve now seen, what McConaughey wanted to say instead, back then, also works today:

“Oh, God’s backyard is bigger than I thought.”

Check out Contact’s opening scene here.

And read New York Magazine’s oral history of the film here.