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The James Webb Space Telescope Image Reveal Was an Embarrassment

Commentary: The first image from Webb absolutely rules, but where were all the science communicators?

The deep black of space is illuminated by hundreds of galaxies in blues, yellows, oranges and reds
A snapshot of galaxies from Webb's first scientific image
NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI

We finally have it: Our highest-resolution infrared image of the cosmos. It's beautiful. 

On Monday, President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris were given the honor of unveiling the "deepest view" into our universe yet. The image, of galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, was captured by the James Webb Space Telescope, a $10 billion machine launched on Christmas Day to probe the very earliest epoch of space.

It's a monumental achievement, the result of decades of planning, development, research and engineering. Webb's First Deep Field, as the image is known, ushers in a new era for astronomy. The world's space scientists are absolutely hyped. Whether they're interested in studying the first stars, the atmospheres of exoplanets, black holes or cosmic objects we haven't even discovered yet, the reveal was truly their moment. Surely we'd feel that excitement from astronomers in the room as they talked their way through the first image... right?

Well, no.

Originally, NASA was scheduled to drop the first batch of five images (well four and one spectra) from Webb during a press conference on the morning of July 12. That conference is still going ahead. But 24 hours prior, the schedule was updated. The last-minute change reconfigured the calendar, with NASA saying it would be revealing Webb's first image with the help of Biden late afternoon on Monday, July 11. 

The press conference was scheduled to start at 2 p.m. PT. It officially kicked off just a touch after 3 p.m. As astronomers and space fans waited for the reveal, they argued about NASA's "hold music" online (for what it's worth, I was a fan) and tinkered with images from NASA headquarters that unexpectedly revealed the image ahead of time.

It was a fun wait. It was probably more fun than the press conference.

Harris opened the proceedings with remarks about the "power of American innovation and international cooperation," and then it was over to Biden. He said the delays were caused by his planning for a trip to the Middle East. The president then recounted Webb's journey from Earth to its home, 1 million miles from our planet. "First of all that blows my mind," he said, adding a little more bewilderment. 

It was here that I couldn't help but think about that scene in Mean Girls where a young girl is giving an "inspiring" speech at school and another student yells out "she doesn't even go here!" before she reveals she's not a student at that school. 

Biden then handed over to Bill Nelson, NASA administrator, who gave a short speech that felt a little confused, stumbling over some of the image's specifics. It lasted for less than three minutes and then... everyone went home. The whole press conference was over in 11 minutes, tops. Some have said that's because the briefing was moving on to embargoed images being released tomorrow, but... that's no excuse for the event we got.

Why does that matter? Who cares how it was presented, right? We got the image! 

Well, some astronomers weren't so keen on it.

It's worth comparing this to a similar photo revealed by Hubble in 2004. When the Hubble Space Telescope snapped its deepest view of the universe, the Hubble Ultra Deep Field, things were different. The Space Telescope Science Institute, or STScI, which manages the telescope (and Webb), held a press conference with a host of astronomy experts

It was a big moment for astronomy; a big moment for science, generally — and in a big moment for science we had excellent science communicators explaining the results. Sure, we got a PowerPoint that, unfortunately, used Comic Sans, but we also were privy to a high-level view of the history of the universe. Diagrams. Explainers... you name it, STScI had it.

That additional context is how we can ensure the stories that are spun up after the reveal get the facts right and really get people interested. If I showed you an image from Hubble and an image from Webb, it might be hard to distinguish the two without someone pointing out the differences. Yes, Webb's first picture, on its own, is remarkable — it's stunning and immediately arresting. You can almost feel the unfathomable void when you look at it, even if you're not that interested in space. But the real incredible details were simply ignored in the Webb press conference.

The attendees at the White House sat solo, at socially distanced desks, and delivered speeches about investing in science and the "spirit of American ingenuity" even though federal funding for basic research hasn't kept up with increases in research and development funding from other sectors (federal funding declined from 31% in 2010 to 20% in 2019). It was PR, not science communication. I don't want to make this a political thing — it's not. It's a missed-opportunity thing.

Where was the discussion about gravitational lensing? How about some zoomed-in images of the funky galaxies that fill the image? Can we get someone in here to compare this with the Hubble images of the same region of space?

Having Biden be the one to reveal the deep field image was like having your uncle announce the arrival of your new baby girl. Except, he doesn't know the name. Or the weight. Or what time it arrived. Sure, he still loves the bundle of joy -- he might still be interested and inquisitive... but it's the wrong person for The Moment, no?

And unfortunately, we don't get The Moment back. There's something sad about that. Something that takes the luster off a universe-changing moment in human history. The image is that big of a deal. It's still a big deal, even if the reveal wasn't.

Fortunately, we kind of get a do-over. On Tuesday, NASA will reveal four more images from Webb at 7:30 a.m. PT. The live broadcast will be followed by a livestreamed briefing featuring many of Webb's project scientists from NASA, the European Space Agency and STScI. 

Now that's more like it.