Scientific Curiosity and the Divine Encounter
Look closely at this remarkable new picture of the early universe taken by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Almost every bright point is an entire galaxy – a collection of tens of billions of stars! – and the faint reddish-colored ones are so far away from us that their light has been traveling for over thirteen billion years. They appear red to us because the expansion of the cosmos has stretched the wavelength of the light they emitted by a factor of ten or more, something like the coils of a stretched spring that are farther pulled apart.
The image reveals that some galaxies have roughly spiral shapes like our own Milky Way while others, dominated by supermassive black holes at their nuclei, appear more point-like. The incredible arcs in the image are formed when the light of some distant red galaxies is bent and distorted by the gravitational field of galaxy clusters that happen to lie between them and us: gravity acts like a lens.
These arcs help us see - in an awesome visual fashion – that gravity produced by matter bends the path of light and (since light travels along the shortest possible path) that gravity shapes the very form of space. The main mirror for the JWST telescope, located about a million miles from Earth, is almost 22 feet in diameter. Its instruments are able to see objects dating from only a few hundred million years after the big bang – but anyone with a modest home telescope and some modern CCD cameras can see for themselves that galaxies are moving away from us; the universe is over 13 billion years old. There are inspirational lessons to learn here for those who are open to spiritual growth.
There are people today who think the universe is literally 5782 years old and who doubt the power of evolution and time - whether for stars, geological wonders like the Grand Canyon, or life and humanity. The new JWST telescope corroborates that the universe is over 13 billion years old.*
The Divine Book of Nature
As the Psalm for Shabbat (Psalms 92) expresses it: “How great are Your deeds [of the Creation]! Your thoughts are very profound.” Moses was chosen to lead (Exodus 3) because he did not fail to spot the wondrous burning bush and because he then turned aside to investigate its strange behavior. His “scientific” curiosity and openness to the world’s phenomena made him ready for a Divine encounter.
What other lessons might be learned from this remarkable astronomical achievement? First, as humanity continues to study the Divine Book of Nature, it will continue learning new things about the holy Creation. In this new image, for example, astronomers have spotted many more young galaxies than had been anticipated – why? And how do these new findings fit into our understanding of the workings of the sacred cosmos?
We are not insignificant, but rather fantastically significant.
Next, it helps to give perspective to us on Earth. For some, such perspective might imply fantastic insignificance, the Earth itself being just an infinitesimal speck. But consider the opposite: intelligent life is rare (none exists anywhere else in our solar system, nor has any been found anywhere else in the cosmos). Perhaps humanity is so incredibly rare and precious that there are no other intelligent beings anywhere else – at least, none that we will know about.
Indeed, this seems to be the most likely situation. Then we are not insignificant, but rather fantastically significant - and in fact, we are so special that apparently a vast cosmos was required to ensure our existence while still following the natural laws of progress for stars and planets. Even those red galaxies from the infancy of the universe thirteen billion years ago are part of the story of how we got here.
Let us not take for granted these blessings. Let us not look away from our task to care for precious life in all its forms. Let us not neglect our responsibility to tend our precious but endangered planet itself.
*Click here to read one approach on how to reconcile the Bible’s view of the age of the universe with the scientific viewpoint.