Space scientists, scholars and astronomy enthusiasts of the world are holding their breath. In few weeks time we may see, through crystal clear images, the first ever glimpses of how it all began, how the universe looked like around 13.5 billion years ago.
Our portal to seeing galaxies and stars that far and deep in the cosmos ? A huge manmade object, about 43 feet long, 14 feet wide, that is currently floating around 1 million miles away from our home and which looks like, well – A giant beehive!
Since time immemorial we are fascinated by looking up at the sky. Without any sophisticated equipment and technological advancements, our ancestors endeavored to study the sky and understand the universe. Humanity’s latest and the boldest attempt yet, to peek into the earliest and the farthest stars out there, and to fathom the past of this seemingly eternal universe was – to put in space, the largest and the most powerful ever, James Webb Space Telescope, launched by NASA, last December.
When the pictures of this milestone event were all over the news, what captivated me instantly about the stunning, $10 Billion telescope was its panel of golden mirrors – arranged as a set of hexagonal segments, resembling a honeycomb.
My first thought was – So basically, when it came to taking the grandest ever peek into the great unknown of the universe, we took design help from one of the tiniest, commonest, taken for granted creatures in this living world, which again, of course is a part of the same universe.
American comic novelist Peter De Vries (February 27, 1910 – September 28, 1993) wrote:
The universe is like a safe to which there is a combination,
but the combination is locked up in the safe.
According to NASA ,
James Webb Space Telescope requires a primary mirror so large that it would not fit inside any existing rockets as one single, large mirror. Because of this, Webb is equipped with a revolutionary set of 18 hexagonal mirror segments that are able to fold to fit inside the rocket fairing. Their honeycomb like arrangement allows for Webb to have the largest possible reflective surface area to make observations, with the least amount of dead space in between each.
This efficient honeycomb pattern commonly found in beehives allows each mirror to perfectly fit together at their edges, effectively creating a singular and massively powerful unit. This arrangement also makes a roughly circular overall primary mirror shape, which is desired as it focuses light into the most compact region on the detectors, and provides the most readily analyzed images. An oval mirror, for example, would give images that are elongated in one direction.
Charles Darwin, the author of “On the origin of species” exclaimed:
He must be a dull man who can examine the exquisite structure of a comb, so beautifully adapted to its end, without enthusiastic admiration.
The mathematical theory behind why bees adopt a hexagonal shape for their honeycomb cells, is believed to be first stated by a roman polymath named Marcus Terentius Varro in around 36 BC. Later known as the Honeycomb Conjecture, it was proven accurate in 1999 by mathematician Thomas C. Hales.
Before James Webb Telescope, the most ambitious instrument to be launched in space by humanity was the Hubble Space Telescope.
Since its launch on in 1990, for decades the Hubble Space Telescope helped make landmark discoveries in the universe and enchanted us with its mesmerizing images. It resolved a long-lived puzzle about the growth rate of the universe and it also detected the first known interstellar object to visit our solar system. However, due to a much larger size, and superior optical design, its successor now is poised to challenge us to take our imagination light-years ahead with its exploratory images of the universe it is promising soon.
The following illustration on NASA’s website explains what a significant improvement the honeycomb shape of the James Webb’s mirror made over the Hubble’s for its size and therefore efficiency.
While it is of course not the first example where this space-efficient hexagonal cells concept is adopted for a man-made design, it very well may be the greatest in terms of its impact on our insights into the universe as mankind. And therefore extremely powerful and delicately poetic at the same time.
To look far, far, far away, we had to look at what we already have, here, on earth – the wisest solution, as always, was held by nature.
A simple but enduring mathematical principle being used by a tiny insect for more than a hundred million years – is still the best. We haven’t found anything better. Probably we cannot. Probably we don’t need to.
Every time we shed our own smartness, become humble in front of the natural world, and then connect with the life within it, we can listen to what it is saying. And there always lies the perfect answers. Reliable. Unfailing. With those answers, we may even understand the greatest of all mysteries. That of the origin of the universe. Just like the way we are waiting to, with the James Webb Space Telescope.
Article ©2022 Gyaneshwari Dave