An Astronomer Gives a Good Answer to a Silly Question
After a fourteen-year delay, the James Webb Space Telescope is set to launch on December 22nd. Dr. Heidi Hammel, who’s worked on the telescope for twenty years, was recently asked by a BBC interviewer, “Will the James Webb Space Telescope see God?”
She responded to that question in a webinar hosted by the Center for Advanced Studies in Religion and Science (CASIRAS). The webinar turned out to be an interesting intro to the telescope. She explained that the Webb telescope differs from Hubble in four ways. It is:
- Bigger – the mirror for Webb is 6.5 meters across, compared to 2.4 meters for Hubble. The mirror is how the telescope collects light, so the larger mirror will allow Webb to collect fainter light from farther distances. The Webb telescope is so large it had to be folded up to fit into the rocket that will take it up. It will take about 30 days to unfold as it travels out to its intended location.
- Redder – Webb will see redder wavelengths of light, meaning wavelengths beyond the visible spectrum. This will enable it to better see through the dust in space. To see star and planet formation, she explained, you have to be able to look through the dust.
- Colder – Webb will be kept at 50 K, which is -370 F. It will be kept cold by a large umbrella-like sunshade that will shield the telescope from the heat of the sun, earth, and moon. She said the sunshield has an SPF of about 1.5M.
- Further – Webb will be further away from the earth and the sun than Hubble. Its location will be 1.5M km out from earth.
The telescope is expected to be in place, aligned, and in service by summer, 2022. Astronomers hope to see light from the early universe, star formation, and planetary systems forming around stars. They also hope to probe the atmospheres of exoplanets by looking at the fingerprints of the light they emit.
After explaining the telescope, she took up the question, Will the telescope see God? I have no idea what Dr. Hammel believes about God, but I thought she gave a good response for that setting. First, she listed two things she does not expect to see. We won’t see a big guy in the sky with white hair and a beard, she said. And we won’t see a celestial city, or City of God, which she jokingly called “Heaven’s Gate.” Check. I wasn’t expecting to see those things either.
Then she turned the question back around: How does one “see” God? Can one see God? Are these even reasonable questions? Indeed, these are profound questions, but here’s how her answer went:
- Do you see God in the beauty of creation? she asked. If so, then you may see God in the vast, ethereal reaches of the cosmos.
- Do you see God in the waters that surround us and give us life? If so, then you may see God in the cosmic oceans of gas and dust in space.
- Do you see God in the patterns of nature, such as a snail’s shell, or a fiddlehead fern, or a hurricane? If that is how God manifests for you, then you will see these same patterns in the swirling galaxies of space.
Her response, in essence, said that what you see will be determined by what you already believe. When it comes to matters of God, I think this is often true.
To wrap up, she showed some images of deep space from Hubble. “I just want to let some of the pictures speak for themselves,” she said. Alongside the images, she quoted Psalm 19 ("The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands") and commented,
"Hubble alone has sent us remarkable views of the heavens. And they are articulating that work. … It is all there for us to explore, to expand our knowledge, and to glory in. To me, this is just an opportunity for us to peer deeper and further and more joyfully into the universe.”
I thought it was a nice way to handle a silly question from a news outlet, but her reference to our ability to look further out into the universe also reminded me of what astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez calls the “Privileged Planet thesis.” In his book The Privileged Planet: How Our Place in the Cosmos Is Designed for Discovery, written with coauthor Jay W. Richards, he argued that a number of features of Earth make it uniquely well-situated for us to peer out into the cosmos. Think about it. Being able to see the stars is not necessary for survival. But it is necessary if we’re going to study the universe we find ourselves inhabiting. Here’s how he put it in The Comprehensive Guide to Science and Faith: Exploring the Ultimate Questions About Life and the Cosmos:
The most habitable places for intelligent beings like us are also the best places for scientific exploration and discovery. Or, to put it more succinctly, the universe is set up for observers to discover its properties.
I liked that Dr. Hammel quoted the Psalmist, and that she mentioned seeing glory in the universe. The late Carl Sagan said we live on an insignificant planet in some forgotten corner of the universe, but the data of the Privileged Planet thesis suggests otherwise. Here again, it does seem to be that people see the world according to what they already believe.
Here's a video trailer for the Privileged Planet:
And here’s a full-length film made from the book:
is Deputy Editor of Salvo and writes on apologetics and matters of faith.• Get SALVO blog posts in your inbox! Copyright © 2023 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/post/if-we-build-a-telescope-big-enough-can-we-see-god