Webb Telescope Delights the Public
The first images from the James Webb Space Telescope have been unveiled.
With them came a host of speculations about discoveries to come.
After six months of testing and tuning, with a few teases during the lead-up, NASA finally revealed five stunning images from the James Webb Space Telescope: one on the evening of July 11, and five more at a press conference on July 12. The “First Images Gallery” includes:
- The Webb first “Deep Field” image
- A portion of the Carina nebula they named “Cosmic Cliffs”
- The Southern Ring Nebula, a planetary nebula
- Motion graph of an exoplanet
- Stephan’s Quintet, a compact galaxy cluster
Astronomers are understandably excited about the detail of the images. Although the JWST collects invisible light at infrared wavelengths, processing techniques allow for human viewers to enjoy the beauty of its photographs in ways that exceed the impact of those from the Hubble Space Telescope that has inspired the world for 32 years. With its larger mirror, the JWST has 6.25 times the collection area of the Hubble (see NASA comparison), and can see objects 10 to 100 times fainter.
After a brief scare from a micrometeor strike, which caused no impairment of the telescope, astronomers (and the public) are understandably relieved to see the JWST performing so well. It cost $10 billion dollars and was subject to multiple delays and cost overruns. Now, what will the telescope do beside provide a steady stream of pretty pictures?
Astrophysicist Martin Barstow at the University of Leicester says the JWST will “change astronomy.” Infrared views can see past obscuring dust and get into the hearts of galaxies, where many questions linger. “It is very exciting to see the new images,” he commented. “I was not prepared for the level of crispness and fine detail that can be seen. It’s a joy to finally have such high-quality data.”
With its six-metre aperture, James Webb is the largest telescope ever launched into space and from its vantage point a million miles from Earth, free from the Earth’s atmosphere, it is expected to deliver the best, most detailed views of the universe we have ever seen. There is no doubt that it will revolutionise our understanding of the cosmos, just as its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, once did.
Barstow comments briefly on each image and what he believes it shows and might show. Other astronomers are sure to pitch in with theories, interpretations and speculations. It will assuredly not tell us where we came from (16 Dec 2021), or witness the origin of life (4 Jan 2022). In the meantime, all can rejoice in the new images and data, like 19th century Europeans eagerly hearing sea captains tell of their voyages to faraway lands.
The JWST’s First Deep Field is not just beautiful; it is highly thought provoking. The patch of sky shown could be covered up with a single grain of sand held at arm’s length. That was true of most of the Hubble’s deep fields as well. The thought of hundreds of billions of galaxies in our universe, each with up to hundreds of billions of stars, is not new. Since the early 20th century, people have known what modern astronomy revealed about the vast extent of our universe. They just didn’t behold its glory with the detail available to us now. Christians and Jews respond with the awe of the Psalmist, who said “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1), and ponder our smallness, like David who looked up at the skies with the naked eye, and wondered, “What is man, that you are mindful of him?” (Psalm 8:3-4). Atheists and materialists, however, use the same observations to dismiss human exceptionalism. Many of them also believe that life and intelligence are common in the universe. So who is right? Can 21st century believers still hold to human exceptionalism in the face of these Deep Field images?
That’s a mighty big question, and I have given it a lot of thought for many years. I have too many ideas to share in a brief commentary. Suffice it to say for now that you can find some answers in my book with Dr Henry Richter, Spacecraft Earth, now in a second printing with a few updates. I’ve given powerpoint presentations on the question. It’s even possible to turn the tables on the atheists by considering the many cosmic “coincidences” that make human life possible. A couple of good books I’ve read recently really make this point powerfully: A Fortunate Universe by Barnes and Lewis, and The Miracle of Man by Michael Denton. Those are not Christian books but make the Biblical account of creation eminently plausible—much more than the “Stuff Happens” view of Big Bang cosmology. Most people have no idea how exacting are the requirements for stars, planets, and life.
Remember, too, that the JWST can only show what photons are entering its detectors now in real time. It is not necessarily looking back billions of years. The reason, as explained in our 11 Jan 2021 entry, is that the one-way speed of light is unknowable. In addition, relativity distorts time and space. This means that look-back time can be incorporated into models of recent creation (see 30 June 2022 ICR article by Jake Hebert). If God used unique processes at the creation of the universe, one cannot infer that present processes explain the observations now. It’s like flood models of the Grand Canyon. If Noah’s Flood laid down the sediments and carved the canyon within a year, one cannot use current rates of flow of the river to date the canyon.
There’s more to ponder. As eternal souls inhabiting physical bodies, humans must be physically as small as we are to exist for God’s purposes: for love, fellowship and service. We cannot be as big as stars. If we were, our mutual gravitation would make us collide and merge! The laws of physics are a coherent set that make physical reality possible. With that in mind, human bodies must be small enough to be held gravitationally to a planet of the right size, with the right kind of star, with the right atmosphere and dozens of other requirements. Denton relates these astonishing detail. He makes the case that the universe shows “prior fitness” for life—not just any life, but complex land life with beings our size able to use fire and invent technology. Considering all the constraints dramatically narrows the candidates for habitable planets. A case can even be made for human uniqueness in all the universe.
If that is the case, then no matter where God put humans, they would wonder, “Why here?” We seem to exist in the middle of nowhere. As the film The Privileged Planet explained, though, the Copernican Principle did not “demote” man to insignificance. It actually elevated man away from the “sump” of the cosmos, where medieval philosophers thought the dregs of creation descended. We don’t have to be in the physical center of the universe to matter to God. There may not even be a center! Nor is our significance a function of our physical size. Our minds can ponder realities far grander than our physical limitations.
In the 21st century era of space telescopes, our data on the universe is now far, far beyond what earlier ages could have conceived. It is still vital, however, to think properly. As the new images come in, it will be necessary to know the difference between observation and interpretation. And it will be helpful to realize that thinking itself presupposes a rational universe. The atheist’s universe cannot account for reason or morals. The Bible gives us the foundation for unchangeable truth and morality. For those of us who know the Lord, it also makes the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on our tiny speck of a planet all the more wondrous.
Those are a few thoughts to get us started as we await more JWST glories to come.