Arguably, the biggest science development of the year to date has been the gobsmacking images of the very depths of the universe beaming back to Earth from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Looking at those new infrared images of galaxies, flung millions of light years across the heavens, and comparing them to previous, commendable but limited efforts by the Hubble Space Telescope and others, one almost gets the sense that humanity has been able to wipe the lens of our shared window to the cosmos and see into it more deeply and clearly than ever before. Even the most casual, armchair cosmologist can appreciate the astounding observational strides made by scientists thanks to the space-piercing gaze of the JWST.
At least for this armchair cosmologist, the unprecedented detail of those images also begs a comparison between the external and internal universes that science is bent on observing and understanding. Decades ago, before humanity possessed the impressive astronomical technology it now wields, astrophysicist and iconic science popularizer, Carl Sagan famously said, “The cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star-stuff. We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” He was commenting then on the reality that the very matter that composes our solar system, this Earth, and her living inhabitants was belched forth from dying stars, long ago and far away. But Sagan also knew that our internal universe was as complex and as mysterious as the celestial bodies and interstellar space that people have been contemplating since the dawn of humanity.
Our internal universe is as complex and as mysterious as the celestial bodies and interstellar space that people have been contemplating since the dawn of humanity.
There are many parallels one can draw between the strides we’ve made in understanding the cosmos that surrounds us and in piecing together life’s inner workings. Like the technological evolution that took us from Galileo’s telescope to the Hubble to the JWST, life science tools have improved exponentially. From early light microscopes to electron and fluorescence microscopes to modern super-resolution approaches, these developments have afforded researchers an ever more intricate glimpse into biology’s infinitesimal landscape. Learning that living things were composed of cells was, not a terribly long time ago, a revolutionary, paradigm-shifting observation. Since then, scientists have been able to dive ever deeper into the constituent components of life.
Going beyond merely observing the intricate makeup of organisms, life scientists can now ferret out the workings of molecules. And that is where scanning the cosmos and peering into biology diverge somewhat. Although cosmologists certainly seek to model how stars, black holes, and galaxies function and evolve, understanding the universe, especially from a functional standpoint, is not necessarily an immediate imperative. Understanding biology on that level is. Simply observing the amazing internal texture of cells and genomes is not enough. Biologists must also characterize how all those parts interact and change in different environments and when faced with various challenges. Being able to image a virus or bacterium is nice at the level of basic science. But knowing how pathogens gain entry into cells and coopt their machinery to proliferate, infect, and disable can literally save lives.
Through time, biology has risen to this mechanistic challenge. Not only can life science tools produce images of cell membranes and chromosomes and neurotransmitters, they can generate dynamic pictures of these biological cogs meshing and working within living cells and tissues. And even more importantly, they can model this behavior to predict the effects of drugs on receptors, of immune cells on foreign invaders, and of genetic perturbations on development and aging.
This is not to belittle the work of cosmologists, who should rightly be heaped with praise for delivering unprecedented views of impossibly distant, impossibly massive phenomena. My aim is to celebrate these accomplishments while at the same time recognizing that science’s inward search for detail and insight is equally impressive and, in my view, more urgent. Gene networks and neuronal maps may not be splashed all over notebooks, handbags, and dresses like the images of ancient galaxies already are. (To be fair, you can buy a sleeveless top featuring a beautiful brainbow of neurons.) But the output of both the outward and inward explorations should spark wonder in everyone. After all, it’s all star-stuff.