NASA Webb telescope photos showing the sometimes emotionally overwhelming vastness of space: GVSU anthropologist

If the fascinating images captured by the James Webb Space Telescope also leave you feeling unsettled by the vastness and mystery of the universe, a Grand Valley cultural anthropologist can explain that feeling based on interviews with astronauts.

Deana Weibel, professor of anthropology, coined the term "ultraview effect" to explain the "transformative sense of incomprehension and a feeling of shrinking" that comes from seeing the cosmos so extensively.

Weibel, who studies how space exploration affects astronauts and their religious beliefs, said astronauts have talked with her about how profoundly they were affected by the immenseness of the universe.

An Apollo astronaut told her he "wasn't ready" for what he saw. This astronaut was on the far side of the moon, in both the shadow of the moon and Earth, when he turned off the lights in the capsule, leading to extreme darkness, Weibel said.

A person smiles in a posed portrait.
Deana Weibel, professor of anthropology
Image credit - Kendra Stanley-Mills

"When he turned out toward the rest of the Milky Way, he said there were not separate stars, there wasn't any space in between them. It was a complete sheet of light," Weibel said. "And that was the thing he said he wasn't ready for: this idea that he was being confronted by just how many stars there were and he was seeing them with his own eyes. The impression I got from him is he didn't know how to process it." 

Back on Earth, he spent a lot of time writing poetry and trying to get his feelings out, Weibel said, adding that the experience changed his attitude about space, including about the prospects of life elsewhere in the universe given the number and density of stars.

"He was one of several, especially Apollo, astronauts to have some kind of perspective-shaking visual experience where what he saw changed the way he understood reality in a really strong way," Weibel said.

She said her "ultraview effect" term on the intense feelings generated by seeing the vastness of the universe is in contrast with a more ingrained concept in the astronaut culture, the "overview effect." This term, coined by author Frank White, refers to the intense emotional response to seeing Earth from space and realizing, with some clarity, its fragility.

A telescope image of cosmic cliffs in space with stars overhead.
"Cosmic Cliffs" in the Carina Nebula is one of the images captured by the Webb telescope.
Image credit - NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI

Experiencing the "ultraview effect" means confronting unlimited unknowns, which can be overwhelming, Weibel said. She noted this response is less studied among astronauts because the space missions don't lend themselves to getting into the necessary darkness conditions to have that experience.

But while Weibel's concept derives from the unique perspective of people who have seen space from space, she said the images from the Webb telescope provide another way to achieve the same mind-blowing feeling.

"If you are seeing the entirety of something amazing it can still make you feel inadequate and small," Weibel said. "But it can also be inspiring."


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