The James Webb telescope launched this week. Much stronger than the Hubble, what might it reveal about the nature of faith and the universe?
NASA launched the much-anticipated James Webb Space Telescope this holiday week, to even less fanfare than the Hubble Telescope of yesteryear.
Oh, sure; scientists, astronomers and astrophysicists were excited when the Hubble first launched in 1990 and they weren’t completely alone. Who among the world’s star-gazers can forget the initial problems with the Hubble and the miraculous lengths NASA went to in order to fix it?
Kids in school in 1990 learned about the Hubble, perhaps filing that information away for a future date. It was well-known, to anyone following the launch, that it would be years, maybe decades, before the first pictures might start showing up.
The Hubble was a tremendous leap of faith. Expensive, with a million moving parts to break, wear down, corrode or come apart. For all NASA scientists knew for certain in 1990, they could have been sending a multibillion dollar piece of space junk out into the depths of the unknown universe, never to be seen or heard from again.
That certainly seemed, at the time, a more plausible outcome than mankind netting a functioning deep-space telescope that would drift for decades past the limits of our solar system and continue to transmit readable data and images.
But still they hoped.
The leap of faith worked, and so- against all odds- did Hubble. The result has been three decades of discovery, wonder and exploration. But no answers- at least not to any of the really big questions, which can hardly be said to be strictly scientific in nature.
Who are we? Where did we come from? How did we get here? Where are we going? And one of the biggest, most enduring questions of the ages, likely since the first hominid gazed at the stars above in wonder and speculation.
Are we alone in the universe?
In all of humanity’s (admittedly limited) wanderings into outer space, we have found nothing. No other humanoids, no astronauts from other galaxies, far, far away; no extra-terrestrials, no space ships, no signs, no signals, no trace. Not even bacteria.
“Where is everyone?” is how physicist Enrique Fermi famously posited the question so long on humanity’s mind.
Especially as space exploration and advanced computing capabilities have revealed the universe as far larger that scientists thought only 20 years ago.
Until that point, the best minds in the world weren’t just wrong about the size of the universe; they were wrong by a tremendous order of magnitude. They thought space was the size of a basketball; they found out it was more like the size of Jupiter.
What’s more, scientists have since learned a thing or two about the conditions that can support life. Given what we now know- or think we know- about the size of space, the number of stars like our sun, the vast number of planets orbiting those strange suns, and the satellites and exoplanets orbiting those…well, the number of potentially-habitable planets reaches a number difficult for our minds to conceive.
When it comes to places where there might be other life in the universe- even that scientific holy of holies, intelligent life- there are more potential places to point a telescope than there are grains of sand on every beach on earth.
That is a lot of real estate.
So, where is everyone?
That we still don’t know is what keeps the scientists at NASA begging for funding year after year. It’s what brought scientists from all over the world to Zoom to watch the historic launch this week, some in their pajamas.
It is also what keeps the world’s faith community going.
It’s the sense that we aren’t alone in the universe- can’t be. It’s the hope and belief that something else is out there- whether your search is for God or merely for answers to the fundamental questions of life.
Science, like faith, isn’t a search for answers but a quest for knowledge. We don’t really know what we are looking for, or what it might look like, until we find it. Theories abound as to why humans haven’t managed to find any signs of other lifeforms in the universe.
Humans have a tendency to anthropomorphize, for instance. It is possible that an alien life form would be so different from ourselves as to be rendered unreadable by our senses. An advanced civilization of aliens might not be carbon based at all, but a being comprised of energy, or some other type of matter we don’t even know about.
The launch of the James Webb telescope, coming as it does during the holiday season is a good reminder that there is little need to reconcile the millions of Christians celebrating Christmas, and the millions of Jews who just observed Hanukkah, and the world’s millions-strong Muslim community who will soon be entering the holy period of Ramadan; with the millions in the scientific community who just watched the Webb telescope launch with the same mix of hope and fear and trepidation and wonder.
There are also millions who can answer to both charges; a rock-solid belief in faith and science.
Some people of faith and science don’t find the two mutually exclusive and never have. They recognize a universal human truth when they see it: It is our search for knowledge, our shared curiosity that unifies us.
Wherever one chooses to look for answers this holiday season, to the stars or beyond, we stand from the same observation point, gazing out at the same distant suns blazing billions of light years away.
Whatever our differences.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)