Galaxies Like Grains of Sand

Two topics today. About the James Webb Telescope photos; and about why people feel the world is broken.

I chimed in on Facebook on Monday with a link to this image, as many of my Fb friends were doing, only to put a well-known science fictional title over it: the name of a short story collection by Brian W. Aldiss, first published in 1960.

I didn’t watch live coverage of the release of the photo (Jerry Coyne says The NASA rollout was lame), so I didn’t see this first photo until later, first on the web and later covered by TV news. The latter was lamentably laughable. Even the science reporter on NBC (generally the network I prefer) blathered on about everything the Webb telescope might discover, like “life on other worlds!” and said virtually nothing about this particular photo. No one I saw on TV made any attempt to explain this photo.

So I will, based on the NASA report, and print sources like NYT: the really bright star just above left center is irrelevant. It’s local, and the spikes are an artifact of the telescope’s mounting. That star is like a street lamp that was unavoidably in your field of view looking out over a city at night.

The significance is in those orange curvy blotches that all seem to align around the center of the photo. And the white, recognizably shaped galaxies, also clustered near the center. The orange blobs are galaxies *much farther away* than the white galaxies; their light has been bent, gravitational lensing style, by the cluster of white galaxies in between them and us. The light bends because of how light follows the curvature of space, which is warped by the combined gravitational fields of the closer cluster of galaxies, as Einstein predicted way back when. This has been observed before, of course, but never seen in such detail. This is why this is an amazing photograph.


Also today, a front page article in today’s Times.

New York Times, Max Fisher (The Interpreter), posted 12 Jul 2022, in today’s print paper: Is the World Really Falling Apart, or Does It Just Feel That Way?

Subtitle: “By most measures — with one glaring exception — people around the world are better off than ever. So why doesn’t it feel that way, especially to Americans?”

This is a take on one of my favorite themes: how people extrapolate the state of the world from their own individual circumstances, and how most people are unaware of how much better the world is than it was decades, let alone centuries, ago. Key books on this theme are Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature (overview here) and Hans Rosling’s Factfulness (review here).

The article echoes some of their ideas, adds a couple I haven’t considered before, and ends with that “glaring exception” that is all too evident from news in the US over recent years. Echoing the familiar thesis:

Has the world entered a time of unusual turbulence, or does it just feel that way?

Scanning the headlines, it’s easy to conclude that something has broken. The pandemic. Accelerating crises from climate change. Global grain shortage. Russia’s war on Ukraine. Political and economic meltdown in Sri Lanka. A former prime minister’s assassination in Japan. And, in the United States: inflation, mass shootings, a reckoning over Jan. 6 and collapsing abortion rights.

That sense of chaos can be difficult to square with longer-term data showing that, on many metrics, the world is generally becoming better off.

War is rarer today, by some measures, than it has been for most of the past 50 years — and, when it does occur, is significantly less deadly. Genocides and mass atrocities are less common all the time, too. Life expectancy, literacy and standards of living have all risen to historic highs.

Why do we think this way?

We tend to judge how we are doing compared to those around us, or compared to our own recent past — not compared to abstract benchmarks or previous generations.

And many of the positive changes are about prevention. No one notices the wars that don’t happen, the family members who aren’t claimed by disease, the children who don’t die in infancy.

Obvious point I hadn’t considered before:

Still, the feeling that the world is getting worse is not universal. In fact, it is mostly held by residents of rich countries like the United States.

Survey after survey has found that a majority of people in low-income and middle-income countries like Kenya or Indonesia tend to express optimism about the future, for both themselves and their societies.

Such countries represent most of the world’s population, suggesting that optimism is, believe it or not, the prevailing global mood.

Those countries, after all, are where those long-term gains in health and well-being are most pronounced.

The US, for example, already at the top of the world by some (not all) standards, sees any potential change as a threat; from the top, there’s nowhere to go but down.

But then the glaring exception: our era of Democratic decline.

For seven decades, the number of countries considered democratic grew. The average quality of these democracies — the fairness of elections, the rule of law and the like — also improved steadily.

That rise began to slow about 20 years ago, though. And beginning five or six years ago, researchers have since found, the number of democracies in the world has shrunk for the first time since World War II.

Existing democracies are also becoming less democratic, as well as more polarized and more prone to political dysfunction or outright breakdown.


Because wealthier countries are likelier to be democratic, they are likelier to be afflicted by this trend. This may speak to rising pessimism in those countries.

It may also help explain why, for Americans, it can feel as if the world as a whole were disintegrating.

The article politely does not describe why democracy in America is in decline, but that too is a recurring theme on this blog, and the answer is all about MAGA conservatives and religious reactionaries.

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