Early on December 25, 2021, the James Webb Space Telescope launched. While much less significant than the birth we celebrate that day, the launch opens a new era in understanding creation. This telescope is a more complex and powerful successor to the Hubble. It will tell us a lot about our home, the universe God created.
In January, the heat shield was in place and the telescope was fully deployed. It will take about six months before we know if the telescope is fully functional and whether the 25-year effort of its design, creation and launch has been worth it.
When in place, this telescope will be about 1.5 million kilometers from the earth and far beyond where astronauts can go to fix it. (Hubble was 570 kilometers above the earth, and astronauts visited it several times to correct problems). Webb’s mirror is 6.25 times larger than the Hubble’s and will look at the universe in infrared wavelengths, giving it a better ability to see things like stars formed early in the history of the cosmos.
What interests me is how this telescope could bring us closer to answering some of the questions God asks in Job 38:4-7. These questions, perhaps meant metaphorically and certainly posed by God to show how little Job understands, are nonetheless tantalizing for us. If I can loosely paraphrase in today’s language, God asks, “Were you there when the cosmos was created? How big is the cosmos? What holds the cosmos together? Can you experience the joy of creation?” Let’s see how the Webb telescope helps us answer each of these.
The observable universe
Since it takes time for light to reach us, the farther the Webb can see, the earlier in the creation of the universe it records. Because of its power and the infrared wavelengths it measures, the Webb can see 13.4 billion years into the past, to when the stars and galaxies were formed – or to quote scripture, when the morning stars sang together.
How big is the cosmos? We may never know the universe’s size. The speed of light and age of the universe limit how far we can see. Scientists talk about the observable universe. Because the universe is expanding, there may be areas far enough away that the light of their stars will never reach us, making them forever beyond our observation. The Webb allows us to see more and more of what it’s possible for us to see, and that gets us closer to knowing how big the universe is.
What holds the cosmos together? We know a bit about the gravity that caused the stars and planets to form. Thus, we have some understanding of what holds it all together. Yet there are still big mysteries. As I have written about before, there is not enough visible matter to account for all the gravity, so we now talk about the dark matter we can’t see. And to explain the expansion of the universe, we have dark energy. Both are placeholders that show how much we don’t understand. Perhaps what the Webb reveals will give us insight into these mysteries.
And how about the joy of creation? Thanks to the creative abilities we received from God, we can make powerful telescopes that probe the depths of the universe. That makes me joyful. But even as our creativity allows us to learn more and more, it also reveals how little we understand. The questions God asks Job are questions that still require fuller answers. Each time we come closer to an ultimate answer, we discover more about our God and the wonders of his creation. I’m reminded of the awe expressed in Psalm 8. Yet it is on the earth that our Lord entered the creation in the person of Jesus. Perhaps this is the greatest mystery of all, which science will never answer.
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