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Deep space, 13 billion years ago. Photo From Webb Space Telescope

By now you’ve probably seen the stunning new images from the Webb Space Telescope, which takes us 13 billion years back in time. That’s 8 billion years before the Earth was born. We stand here now looking back at a time before there was ground to stand on, or a human consciousness to see or grasp anything at all. We are looking at a speck of sky no bigger than a grain of sand, they say, yet filled with millions of galaxies and trillions of stars, and who knows how many planets or moons or intelligent life-forms looking back. Only they wouldn’t see us. For we don’t exist yet.

It’s mind-boggling. And certainly puts the turmoil we’re experiencing here on Earth into a new perspective. No less urgent or relevant for our fire-fly timespans. But it points us away from the personal and relative “here and now” into one that is infinitely larger than our selves and the tiny blue marble we call home. Our “here and now” encapsulates not only the present moment but the “here and now” 13 billion years ago. We are the link that spans that distance through time and space. Our consciousness. Mine. Yours. Now. Enfolding all that. Surely it means something significant.

When we turn the eye inward rather than out, into the micro-universe of atoms and particles swirling inside us and everything that exits, we grasp a new paradox. Quantum physics has shown us that those inner worlds at the most infinitesimal level exist only as clouds of potentiality rather than as concrete substance. These clouds of potentiality only become “real”—that is, fixed in time and space—when observed. Unseen they exist only within a hazy realm of the possible.

In comparison to the infinite universe swirling around us and inside us, we humans may seem pathetically insignificant. Not worth a mention in the footnotes of atomic and astronomic legers of Science. And yet we seem to play an essential and outsized role.

Without the human mind to grasp the universe there would be no universe to be grasped. Our bodies may have been evolved from star-dust. But it’s our minds, our own conscious grasping of such, that moves “star-dust,” and all else, out of the realm of the potential and into the realm of the real.

Such is the circular and utterly paradoxical wonder of a world we live in.

The cloudy realm from which stars are born. Photo from the Webb Space Telescope.