Like The Hub?
Join our community.

Harry Rakowski: The Webb telescope and lessons for the pale blue dot


The James Webb Space Telescope is a unique and large infrared telescope launched in 2021 on an Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana and is set in position about 1.5 million kilometres away from earth.

Its purpose is to explore the early phases of the history of our universe and provide insights into the formation of solar systems including our own. It now has started to send back remarkable pictures of what our world was like billions of light years ago.

It is a remarkable accomplishment whose brilliance is an antidote to the streams of dark news that we receive every day.  We are constantly reminded of how poorly governments function, rapidly rising inflation, war and misery in Ukraine and food shortages leading to starvation in poor countries. Can the awe we feel about the technological feat of discovery by the Webb telescope make us better understand our own world? 

The telescope was developed through an international collaboration between NASA, and both the European and Canadian Space Agencies. Its main industrial partner was Northrop Grumman and after its launch is now run by the Space Telescope Science Institute. 

The illustration below from the NASA site shows the evolution of the cosmos from the original Big Bang and how far back we may be able to “see” the Universe develop. 

The Webb telescope represents a tremendous feat of technological innovation and collaboration. The mirrors are made of ultra lightweight beryllium and include a 6.5 meter primary mirror made up of 18 segments that unfold when deployed. It requires a tennis court sized sunshield to attenuate heat from the sun, earth and moon, critical for its infrared signal detection used to create images of space. The Webb telescope also has special cameras and spectrometers that can detect extremely faint signals and a cryocooler to protect them from overheating.

The CSA contributed 2 major elements to the telescope, both built in partnership with Honeywell. The fine guidance sensor allows the telescope to target and focus on objects of interest. The Near-Infrared Imager Slitless Spectrograph helps astronomers study images acquired from distant galaxies that shows them shortly after the Big Bang. In exchange Canada receives a guaranteed share of the telescope’s observation time. 

These innovations are providing astronomers worldwide images and information remarkable for their clarity of detail and new information about how life began. The Washington Post published a remarkable interactive story about the early photographs received and I encourage you to read it.

There are images of never-before-seen galaxies some with billions of stars, dying red stars, black holes and the substrate for the formation of new hot stars. 

These discoveries do not yet have practical application, yet they will help us to better understand our universe and as we have seen before, practical application of this scientific knowledge will ultimately follow and improve our everyday lives. 

We have again learned the value of international co-operation and public- private sectors working together. 

In Canada, the mission of the CSA is to “advance the knowledge of space through science and ensure that space, science and technology provide social and economic benefit to Canadians.” Despite the financial challenges that we face today, we need to more aggressively fund scientific discovery and training for the men and women who will be the scientists of today and tomorrow. 

Canada now lags behind in funding the discoveries that will shape our future. We have much to offer in the fields of aerospace, computer science, clean energy, mining and biomedical engineering, just to name a few. Public/private partnerships can generate and market new technologies and develop industries that create jobs and economic wealth. 

Canada spends about half of what the U.S. does on research and development. We had done well in the fields of higher education and funding the next generation of scientists through the Canadian Foundation for Innovation and the awarding of Canada Research Chairs, but we are now falling behind. We also are behind in business R&D spending and the link between public and private funding that leads to commercialization and economic opportunity. Our role in the development of the Webb telescope is a model for such success. 

The remarkable images from the Webb telescope will greatly inform us about how the universe was created. However, we have to look inward to better understand where we currently are in our lives, our place in the universe and how we can better define where we need to go to make our world a better place. 

It is hard to contemplate the magnitude of the universe, or to fully appreciate how infinitesimal the Earth within it truly is. It does teach us that in the grand scheme of things, despite our egocentric beliefs, we are an insignificant part of the cosmos.  

Our daughter Lauren reminded me that Carl Sagan, the philosopher and astrophysicist said it best. His 1994 book Pale Blue Dot was inspired by a photograph taken of the earth at Sagan’s suggestion by Voyager 1 from 4 billion miles away. The earth appeared simply as a tiny point of light: 

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves… There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

Malcolm Jolley: Clayton Ruby made a career of pushing back on bullies


Clayton Ruby died last week, and his memorial was this week. In the notice of his death, his family wrote: “In lieu of donations, go out and change the world,” which Ruby surely did.

He established himself as a leading litigator as a young lawyer in Toronto in the early 70s and as his reputation as a civil rights champion grew, Ruby was at the centre of some Canada’s most important constitutional law cases as the country’s judicial system reconciled itself to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in the 1980s and 90s.

Ruby, a member of the Order of Canada, was a changer of not one, but many worlds. These were duly represented by the attendees at his standing room only memorial. My wife is part of the legal community, and was mentored by Ruby. I sat with her and she pointed out the surviving lions of law who had come to pay their respects and mourn the loss of a great man and friend.

My mother-in-law, who I also sat next to, is part of the literary community. She knew Clayton Ruby from his work in defence of free speech and advocacy on behalf of jailed and persecuted writers, most notably with PEN Canada. Likewise, she could point to the grieving members of the publishing and writing world who were there.

My contribution to recognizing faces in the crowd was somewhat more limited, but I believe worth mentioning as it touches another world that Clayton Ruby helped changed that might not have received the attention it deserves in many tributes to him published in other channels. In the corner of the room I recognized two tall distinguished looking gentlemen: chefs and friends Jamie Kennedy and Michael Stadtlander.

I knew Clayton Ruby primarily through my wife, and on a handful of memorable occasions, was lucky to sit around a table with him and his wife, Harriet Sachs, the Superior Court judge and legal lioness in her own right. Before I met them, I knew Ruby had a reputation not just as a fearsome lawyer, but also as one of this country’s greatest epicures. From my experience, the man lived up to this reputation completely.

Clayton Ruby as champion of fine wine and food, and the women and men who make and serve them, came to my attention when he defended Michael Stadtlander and his wife Nobuyo against a trumped up charge of violating the liquor laws more than 20 years ago. The couple had received great attention and critical acclaim at Eigensinn Farm, their home and restaurant, which was and is a two hour drive northwest of Toronto.

The Standlanders served guests in their home and did not have a liquor license and so they did not sell alcohol. The wine one drank at dinner was the wine one brought. The local authorities devised what was clearly a sting operation whereby two undercover agents cajoled the Stadtlanders to gift them a bottle of wine from their own personal cellar, then they charged them and threatened to shut down one of Canada’s most exciting new restaurants.

It didn’t take long for Clayton Ruby to talk to the press, embarrass the local heat and make the whole mess go away. Michael and Nobuyo Stadtlander operate Eigensinn Farm to this day. The matter was a perfect fit for Ruby, whose career was made by pushing back at bullies, but it was more than that: he had skin in the game.

Ruby would have known Stadtlander and Kennedy when they cooked together, then apart in a series of acclaimed restaurants in Toronto from the mid-1980s and on. An accomplished cook himself, Ruby was a great patron of the Toronto restaurant scene as it came of age. When my writing career was more focused on the hospitality industry, and I had my finger on the hottest, newest, best, about to really take off restaurants in Toronto, it wouldn’t be unusual for my wife and I to show up to one and see Ruby already seated at the best table in the room.

I chatted a bit about Clayton Ruby’s place and importance in the pantheon of the great patrons of the culinary arts at the reception after the memorial service with Michael Stadtlander. As an aside, and something of a mischievous grin, he asked me if I had “been to the cellar?” I had, and the collection of wines I witnessed was so impressive that when Ruby asked me if I’d like to pick one the Grand Cru’s for the dinner we were soon to enjoy, I froze like a deer in the headlights and had to demure to his obviously advanced taste. The wine was superlative, and my embarrassment was quickly forgotten.

There is a golden thread running through the multitudes of tributes to Clayton Ruby’s legal career that he was always kind to his clients and generous with his colleagues. I witnessed the latter in his support to my wife as an up-and-coming lawyer. I witnessed it for myself too: he was a supportive of my various food and wine publishing and writing ventures, for which I am grateful.

I believe that one of Clayton Ruby’s great talents was to see the dignity in people who were being pushed around or otherwise not recognized. This led to him to change the way laws of Canada would be interpreted and administered, which is a big deal. It’s maybe not such a big deal to add that Clayton Ruby also saw dignity in the people who made great food and wine, when few did, and that he helped create a culture of enjoyment of the hospitality industry that we now take for granted. But he did, and those that know are thankful for it.