Diving into the cave of the universe with astrophysicist David Elbaz: “Life is no coincidence”

He may be in the business, seeing other images of the universe, but this time, David Elbaz recognized it: He was “a little surprised.” “Along with my colleagues, we were surprised. We did not expect the pictures to be so beautiful, so beautiful. The details, the amount of information in it… everything exceeded our expectations, even though we had prepared ourselves”. Interview with Scientific Director of CEA Saclay’s Department of Astrophysics, author of “The most Beautiful Ruse of Light” (Odile Jacob).

Why do we say that these images are more than 13 billion years old?

I will give a simple example. When the Jesuit Matteo Ricci went to China to convert the population, he wrote to his father who answered him, but when he received the letter from his father, he was dead. Ink drawn during his lifetime, from a bygone era, the letter took many years to arrive. The image we get from the galaxy is exactly the same! Information comes to us after being conveyed by matter, in this case photons, particles of light. Our telescope may be 1.5 million km from Earth, but on the scale of the universe it is very close to us. The image was traveling through space and one day a telescope captured it. As it was more than 13 billion years ago. It’s hard to imagine because it means we can’t see the current state of the universe. For example, the nearest galaxies we see are 200,000 years old. And if I had the power to shut down all the stars in the universe right now, we wouldn’t be able to figure it out in our lifetime!

Carina Nebula “This is the biggest star nursery. We can see all the evolutionary stages before their birth, which still remains one of the great mysteries of astronomy”. NASA, ESA, CSA, STSCI

premium First image of the James Webb Telescope, ushering in a new era for astronomy

Specifically, what will these images be used for and how are they revolutionary?

This is a revolution in the sense that we have known for some time that observatories like the Hubble Space Telescope have a limit. He could not dive into the invisible, never reach the depths, with the purpose of seeing what is called the dawn of the universe, that is, the birth of the first stars and galaxies.

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With the help of the James Webb satellite, we go from diving suits to submarines.

We will also be able to see something quite incredible: we know 5,000 planets that orbit other stars, we continue to discover more but now we want to know that they have molecules that organize themselves, form themselves, give rise to complexity, may have existed on Earth in the past. Similar to the situation. We will be able to dive into the interstellar dust and see through it. Like doing an ultrasound of the area where stars are born.

Volatile Nebula. “You have the future of the Sun in 5 or 6 billion years when it will exhaust its fuel reservoir. It will collapse on itself and become this little white star in the center. We are witnessing both the death of a star and the birth of the complex matter of the universe, which we see in the mantle of interstellar dust”. NASA, ESA, CSA, STSCI

Is discovering an exoplanet with a habitable atmosphere science fiction? Nothing is certain and we are also starting with planets that are not habitable, such as WASP-96B observed there and which is a gas giant more like Jupiter or Saturn than Earth. Here at CEA, we participated in the construction of the MIRI instrument on board the James Webb Telescope, which made it possible to observe the atmospheres of the closest planets to Earth, including TRAPPIST-1b, as discovered by the Beer Belgians! If there is liquid on the surface of the planet, we can find out if there is an atmosphere, if there is water… The idea that we can find habitable planets is now a reality. It is estimated that there are about 10 billion “worlds” in our galaxy and the Milky Way that could potentially have liquid water on them. It’s not evidence, it’s statistics. We have other telescopes under construction to go even further. It’s not science fiction anymore.

premium James Webb: Ariane 5 has successfully injected the space telescope into its final orbit

Our wildest dream is to discover that there is life on other planets.Astrophysicist David Elbaz. ©Francois Pallu

Doesn’t thinking about the universe bring us back to our place?

In the beginning, when men and women began to observe the universe, they realized that they were on the grain of sand of the infinite universe. Remember Pascal’s famous sentence about this “eternal silence of infinite space that frightens me”… and then, later, they realized that the universe had a history and changed it. In the past, this universe was very little organized, little structured. The red thread of its history is that it never stopped organizing itself into complex forms.

Sometimes people tell themselves that life is pure chance in the universe. However, this does not lead to further disorder, largely thanks to light, which plays a major role in the organization of matter.

The universe created atoms, then molecules, dust particles, stars, planets and life. Some believe that they see in it proof of the existence of God, others affirm that these are the general laws of physics… The fact remains that life in this universe is the result of a history, of an eternal organization. It seems to me that he is worth more. We can say that we are nothing in this universe.

Quintet by Stephen. “Here we observe a cosmic ballet in which galaxies cross and affect each other creating tidal effects (starbursts, ejections of matter, black holes, etc.) like the moon over the ocean”. NASA, ESA, CSA, STSCI

However, life is much more structured than the stars. People are not a bug in the system. Today, the planetary challenges we face indicate to us that we must reclaim ourselves in this history in order to accept our responsibilities as living beings. It is a good thing, in my opinion, that man faces problems on a large scale because it puts him in his place, which records him in the history of the universe. It was before, when we thought we could live our lives as if we had no influence on the world, that we didn’t belong.

Earth is an extraordinary oasis bathed in a cosmic desert.

There are not many like that!

Florence Chedotal

To find the first shots delivered by the James Webb Telescope, here is a link to the photo gallery.

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