How infinitesimally small are we?
We are so small our brains lack the processing power to answer the question.
So small that on Monday morning we attended to the mundane, the things our primitive minds could manage: Eggs for breakfast, food and water for the dog and then, at the very outer edges of our comprehension, $5.50 for a gallon of gas.
Then came news of something we can never fully comprehend, an image so astonishing it provokes the biggest questions:
“Who are we?”
“Where are we?”
“Are we alone?”
“Is there a God?”
President Joe Biden unveiled in the South Auditorium of the White House one of the first images taken by the James Webb Space Telescope, which at this moment is about a million miles above Earth, its lens aimed at the outer cosmos.
What a patch of sky that is!
It was a picture of “some of the oldest and most distant cosmic structures ever observed” reported the Wall Street Journal, paraphrasing the observations of University of Arizona astronomer Kevin Hainline.
To the untrained eye, Tuesday’s image was just “a patch of sky,” as The New York Times described it. One that can be seen from earth from the Southern Hemisphere.
But what a patch of sky.
“It includes a massive cluster of galaxies about four billion light-years away that astronomers use as a kind of cosmic telescope. The cluster’s enormous gravitation field acts as a lens, warping and magnifying the light from galaxies behind it that would otherwise be too faint and faraway to see.”
Through the Webb telescope mankind is seeing extremely distant galaxies “that stretch back to the beginning of time,” Hainline told The Journal. “(It’s a) galaxy-finding machine.”
The machine-makers are researchers from the University of Arizona and Lockheed Martin, who developed the Near Infrared Camera instrument or NIRCam on the Webb telescope. It is designed to “peek through clouds of hydrogen and dust that would normally obscure celestial objects,” a UA primer on the topic explains.
A team led by the UA’s Marcia Rieke, a Regents' professor of astronomy at the UA Steward Observatory, “developed the NIRCam's focal plane – which is similar to a digital camera's imaging sensor,” according to the primer.
What it can see is the ancient past.
'A lonely speck in the cosmic dark'
“This is the oldest documented light in the history of the universe from 13 billion — let me say that again, 13 billion — years ago,” President Biden said.
A billion is a number so large it is essentially an abstraction to the human mind. Light that has traveled 13 billion light-years requires context so we can begin to understand it.
Light moves at a speed of 670.6 million miles per hour. A beam of light can travel approximately 6 trillion miles in a single Earth year, according to Space.com.
At that speed you could travel around the Earth 7.5 times in a single second.
Science created “light years” because it needed a measurement that could describe the vast distances of space. “Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark,” said the late astronomer and sage Carl Sagan. “In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.”
The closer Sagan moved toward the stars, the further away he seemed to move from God, or the concept of an all-powerful creator. While not rejecting entirely a creator, he suggested that those who believe in God may have failed to imagine large enough. That objective, quantifiable reality points to something even bigger and more awe-inspiring.
You can see why he might have thought that. The numbers are staggering.
Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, is about 100,000 light-years across and contains some 100-400 billion stars, according to NASA.
It’s size is too big to comprehend, but within the context of the larger universe it is smaller than a grain of sand.
One of our neighboring galaxies is Andromeda. It is 220,000 light-years wide. More than twice the size of our own.
How many galaxies do you think there are?
NASA estimates 2 trillion. And if you can wrap your brain around that, ask yourself this question:
How many planets are there in all those galaxies?
Too many planets to comprehend
Roughly 700 quintillion, estimates astrophysicist Erik Zackrisson from Uppsala University in Sweden, in Discover Magazine. That’s 7 followed by 20 zeroes: 700,000,000,000,000,000,000.
Scientists estimate the observable universe is 93 billion light years across, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.
As Sagan once said, “Even today the most jaded city dweller can be unexpectedly moved upon encountering a clear night sky studded with thousands of twinkling stars. When it happens to me after all these years it still takes my breath away.”
About a decade or so ago, organized atheists in this country began a new tack. In response to the insults they sometimes endure from a Christian majority, they got in the face of religious people and accused them of believing fairytales.
The group American Atheists and others began running billboards and bus advertisements that read:
They saw themselves as people of reason, who demand facts and evidence over faith and ritual. To them, the religionists are fabulists, people who believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and an omnipotent creator.
In that same spirit, Lawrence M. Krauss, director of the Origins Project at Arizona State University, wrote a piece in the New Yorker in 2015 headlined “All Scientists Should Be Militant Atheists.”
“It’s ironic, really, that so many people are fixated on the relationship between science and religion: basically, there isn’t one,” he wrote. “Belief or nonbelief in God is irrelevant to our understanding of the workings of nature. ... Five hundred years of science have liberated humanity from the shackles of enforced ignorance. We should celebrate this openly and enthusiastically, regardless of whom it may offend.”
Science drew my father to God
My dad would have identified with Krauss’ cynicism. He was an old cynic himself, unafraid to point out the inconsistencies and perversions in some religious dogma. But he would have disagreed with this Krauss observation: “Because science holds that no idea is sacred, it’s inevitable that it draws people away from religion.”
Science drew my dad closer to religion. He was a pediatric radiologist at St. Joseph’s Hospital who read X-rays for a living. He believed in the scientific method, but also came to believe that there are things so extraordinary in nature they could not all have happened by accident — that mankind did not emerge because the primordial slime turned right instead of left.
His office shelves sagged with the weight of hundreds of medical books and journals. He read about 100 pages every night, he said, just to keep up with all the advances in his field.
I remember him telling me years ago as he sat in his home office that the more he reads about the structure and mechanism of the human body, the more he believes in the existence of a supreme being. Man’s design is that intricate and masterful.
My dad, like myself, and billions of people who have walked this earth have been imbued with an intimation of a creator. Cultures the world over have built societies around such beliefs. The Judeo-Christian values that inform the West have given way to the commons of government and law, as I believe they must. But moral values derived from faith still inform our laws.
The atheists would argue that this human impulse to create God is a coping mechanism for homo sapiens who fear their own mortality. Perhaps. But could it be evidence of something more significant?
“Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality,” said Sagan. “When we recognize our place in an immensity of light-years and in the passage of ages, when we grasp the intricacy, beauty, and subtlety of life, then that soaring feeling, that sense of elation and humility combined, is surely spiritual.”
Is that God’s face in the cosmos?
The Webb Space Telescope isn’t going to answer that question. But it does tell us the man of science and the man of faith are both travelers in a universe whose vastness they can barely perceive. They are both flying blind.
They are as tiny creatures on a grain of sand, and neither can see what exists beyond the shore. They know nothing.
Imagine the wonders that must lie beyond.
And what a feast that offers to such a curious species as our own.
Phil Boas is an editorial columnist for The Arizona Republic. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Webb telescope may not show us the face of God, but it draws us closer