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Featuring guest Deborah Haarsma

Deb Haarsma | James Webb Space Telescope

Deb Haarsma visits the studio to talk to Jim about the James Webb Space Telescope and some of the first images that it has sent back to earth.


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Webb Captures Stellar Gymnastics in The Cartwheel Galaxy

Deb Haarsma visits the studio to talk to Jim about the James Webb Space Telescope and some of the first images that it has sent back to earth.

Description

Deb Haarsma visits the studio to talk to Jim about the James Webb Space Telescope and some of the first images that it has sent back to earth.

  • Originally aired on August 25, 2022
  • With 
    Jim Stump

Before You Read

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Transcript

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump. 

When the first images were released from the James Webb Space Telescope—or JWST as it has been referred to—it was a pretty monumental occasion for science and especially for astronomy. JWST has been many decades in the making, and was rocketed into space on Christmas day of 2021. It has the potential to see further into space than any other telescope on earth. And because light takes a long time to travel through space, by looking a great distance, we’re also able to see back in time, to near the beginning of the universe. The images that have been released of galaxy clusters and nebulae are breathtaking. You can see all the images that have been released and new ones that are released on NASA’s website, which is linked in the shownotes. 

Of course we would talk to Deb Haarsma about this. She is the president of BioLogos and her PhD is in astronomy. She’s been on the podcast a number of times before, and you can hear more about her background and science and faith story back on episode 59. Deb has been following the progress of the Webb Telescope since it launched. For many of us, the pictures that were released are beautiful, but the scientific relevance is lost on us. We wanted Deb to enlighten us on what these images mean for science, and in doing so, what they might also tell us about the glory of God, which according to the Psalmist is so prominently declared up there in the heavens. 

Let’s get to the conversation. 

[musical interlude]

Well, Deb, welcome back to the podcast. It’s good to have you here again.

Haarsma:

Oh, it’s great to be back, Jim.

Stump:

So you are now in charge of BioLogos and don’t get a lot of telescope time these days. But I think it’s fair to say that you still identify as an astronomer and keep up with the field, right? 

Haarsma:

Oh, that’s right. Yeah. 

Stump:

Well, the biggest thing in astronomy these days is the James Webb Space Telescope. This must be an exciting thing for you. 

Haarsma:

Oh, it is. I’ve been hearing about this for, must be 20 years, at astronomy conferences. “We’re prioritizing the James Webb Space Telescope. We’re building it. Here’s the design.” And it just has taken so long, because it’s such an incredibly complicated telescope. But it finally launched and it’s working.

Stump:

Tell us some of the emotions you felt as you were watching this whole process come to fruition?

Haarsma:

Yeah, it was launched, the launch date kept moving back and back and it landed on Christmas Day. But we don’t have little ones at home so it was no problem for me to get up early to watch the launch. And there’s like one of the biggest worries was it would blow up on the launch field, you know, or explode in the atmosphere or something. And instead stage after stage, it just worked perfectly. And then, so you know, several things did not fail as it launched. But then several more things could have failed in the couple of months as it was traveling out. It is now about four times further away than the moon. That’s where JWST is. 

Stump:

Yeah, why did it have to go so far?

Haarsma:

Well, it gets it away from the infrared radiation of the earth. And that it’s at a special point that also is kind of stable, where it doesn’t take much for the engines on the spacecraft to keep it in place.

Stump:

Stable because of gravitational pulls from…

Haarsma:

Yeah, being pulled from by the Earth and by the sun. And so it JWST is orbiting the sun, but the earth is tugging on it as well and keeping it this pretty much constant distance from Earth. And so that’s a special spot where that happens. And so that’s where they put it.

Stump:

So is it actually orbiting around the Earth?

Haarsma: 

Nope. 

Stump:

It’s just in orbit around the sun with us as we go around the sun? 

Haarsma:

It all depends on what frame of reference you use. But if you’re, if you’re standing above the solar system, looking down, you would see the Earth going around the sun and then JWST making a circle around the sun as well, just a little further away from the Sun than the Earth is.

Stump:

So it’s staying equidistant from the earth all the time, though. It is it staying about the same distance from the gravitational thing to make sure that

Haarsma:

Yeah, normally something a bit further away from the Earth would orbit more slowly around the Sun than the Earth does. But the earth is tugging on JWST to keep it aligned with us.

Stump:

Okay, well, when most of us hear telescope we think of a tube with a piece of glass at either end that you peek through. That’s not exactly what we’re dealing with here, is it?

Haarsma:

No, it is not. And actually a lot of the research telescopes on the ground, most of them you cannot look through with your eye. When I’ve done astronomy research, it’s all telescopes and instruments attached to it. And you plan out your observations on the computer and you have to take photographs and data and analyze it later. So, but this one being located so far from Earth, we can’t go and repair it even where’s the Hubble Space Telescope, we could go and repair it.

Stump:

Which we had to do.

Haarsma: 

Which we had to do and multiple times and we can upgrade the instruments. No, JWST had to work the first time. Every single thing worked this spring as they were unfolding this huge sun shield. And as they were unfolding the telescope itself, because the mirror isn’t one solid piece. It’s all these hexagon pieces that had to all unfold, and it all worked. And now the images are coming in.

Stump:

So what’s it gonna be able to do that Hubble couldn’t do? Or what have we been looking forward to for these 20 years that people are saying, we can’t wait until this comes online?

Haarsma:

Well, one thing is it’s a lot larger. So the mirror is 21 feet across, whereas Hubble is only seven feet across. And so that gives it six times more collecting area which allows you to observe much fainter things in much less time, you can just have this huge light bucket to collect the light. Another huge difference is that it observes in infrared wavelengths. So if you’ve been at a restaurant and you’ve seen the heat lamps heating the food before they bring it out to you, those are emitting infrared rays, you put your, you can see a little bit of red light, but you put your hand on, you go wow, that’s really hot. That’s near infrared light. And then it goes all the way out to mid infrared. And the stars and galaxies emit light at those wavelengths and so do dust clouds and clouds of gas. And so all of those things can be detected by JWST and Hubble could not detect those.

Stump:

Hubble was only doing visible light.

Haarsma:

Yeah, a little bit of ultraviolet, a little bit of just into the infrared, but not nearly as far as JWST.

Stump:

Well, cool, we’ll get talking about some of these pictures and how the infrared helps to explain or lets us see more of what’s going on there. And I’ll have some questions to ask about how that works exactly as we get there. But let’s start into some of these pictures. And we’ll do our best to describe images in an audio only format here, but at least we’ll have a good conversation about them. So the first one I pulled up was the southern Ring Nebula. So this one I read is about 2000 light years away from us, which I think we first need to put that into context. So you said the Webb telescope is four times further than the moon. Well, how far is how far is the moon exactly? What are we dealing with here?

Haarsma:

The moon is 239,000 miles away. it takes light about 1.3 seconds to travel from the moon to us.

Stump:

Okay, so that’s a light second. A light 1.3 second. And the telescope itself then is close to a million miles away.

Haarsma:

That’s about about four times further than the moon.

Stump:

Okay, so the next thing then, the sun, I seem to remember, like 90 some million miles away.

Haarsma:

That’s right. So like about times further away than JWST. 

Stump:

A hundred times further. And how long does light from our sun take to get here? 

Haarsma:

About eight minutes.

Stump:

Then let’s keep trying to put things into scale here. The next closest star, Alpha Centauri, right, which is actually a system of three stars. How far away are we talking now?

Haarsma:

Well, light takes about 4.3 years to get from there to here. 

Stump:

Sheesh. So this is what a light year is, how far light can go in one year. And we see these other pictures of galaxies. And it looks like everything’s packed in there pretty close. But our next closest star 4.3 light years away. Wow. So then how about our galaxy itself? If you were to measure it, go from one end to the other? How long are we talking?

Haarsma:

It’s about 100,000 light years, roughly, it’s hard to figure out exactly where the edge is. We are about 25,000 light years from the center of our galaxy.

Stump:

Okay. So we’re on one side of it. And we’re now, so back to our nebula here, our nebula, 2000 light years, it’s fairly close to us when we’re talking Galaxy scale, huh? 

Haarsma:

That’s right. 

Stump:

Okay, so what’s a nebula? What are we looking at?

Haarsma:

So a nebula is as a general term for anytime there’s a cloud of gas or dust in space. And usually when it’s glowing, and we talked about different kinds of Nebula or Nebulae t do the proper plural. And the Ring Nebula here is the remains of a star.

Stump:

So why is dust glowing? Why does it emit anything if it’s just dust?

Haarsma:

Well, that’s a great question. So different things are glowing for different reasons, we can say. So in this case, there is the remains of a dying star at the center. And that’s giving off some light. And the gas clouds there are fluorescing in that light. That light is causing the molecules to go through their transitions, just like the fluorescent light bulbs in a light fixture. And then the dust it’s just warmed by the star and it’s glowing because it’s warm, and giving off that infrared radiation.

Stump:

So it might help us to remember something of the lifecycle of a star itself. So it has all this primarily hydrogen right to start with. That’s undergoing fusion, giving off a bunch of stuff, but it burns up its fuel and then eventually peters out. So that’s what we’re looking at here, at a star that’s already gone through a lifecycle.

Haarsma:

That’s right, yeah. And our own star will eventually go through something like this. 

Stump:

But not next week or next year. 

Haarsma:

No, you don’t need to mark your account. It’ll be about 5 billion years from now. But yeah, so stars, they have a life cycle. And they spend most of their time just fusing the hydrogen into helium at the core of the star and that’s the fusion reaction that produces all the energy. But eventually that hydrogen gets used up in the core, and it goes through several transitions near the end of its life. But at the point we’re seeing here in this nebula is that it’s been sending out these rings of gas and dust and you can kind of see a series of those shells going outward. And so it’s a really cool way to see this complex processes at the end of the life of the star.

Stump:

So this one, at least one of the photos that I understand is taken with, you know, we’re looking at different wavelengths of light here, but one of them kind of looks like the cross section of a ham to me. Do we learn anything new from these photos about nebula? What you’re saying the plural is nebulae? Do we learn anything new about nebulae from looking at this photo?

Haarsma:

Well, you make me laugh, because there have been these pictures posted on the Internet of food items that look like these photos, including one astronomer putting up something like, oh it’s a bit of sausage. And he says, oh , this is a new, you know, deep image of the sun. 

Stump:

Oh, I saw that 

Haarsma:

It’s not. 

Stump:

Lots of people believed him though.

Haarsma:

Oh my. Well, so are we learning something new? So, one new thing we see in these images is in the mid infrared red one, you can actually see the remains of that star at the center, it’s very hard to see in the near infrared image. So the mid infrared and near infrared are two different wavelengths of light. But to actually be able to detect that star because it’s shrouded in the dust, and only at the mid infrared, can you see through the dust. So cool. So we do see something new in this image. But keep in mind, these are the very first images from JWST, they’re mostly showing the promise of what will be to come when they’re able to really intensively observe these objects and observe many objects of this sort, what they’ll collectively be able to learn will be incredible.

Stump:

So this is going to lead me to the topic I’d like to talk about, about the next picture, the galaxy, the cartwheel Galaxy one. Because I assume that scientists, when they’re studying these, it’s not like they just make a big blown up printout of this picture and look at it through a magnifying glass, right? They’re analyzing data. They’re not just looking at this image the way we are, right? 

Haarsma: 

That is true. Yes. 

Stump:

Okay. So this leads me to the cartwheel galaxy. So tell us what we’re looking at in this one that’s very pretty.

Haarsma:

Oh, it’s so pretty. So the the Hubble image of this showed hints of the structure, but in the Webb  image we can see the structures so much more dramatically. Because it’s able to detect what this dust structure is doing, because it comes through so much more clearly in the mid infrared part of the spectrum. So what happened in the cartwheel galaxy is one galaxy slammed right through the middle of the other. And the shockwaves from that collision are still reverberating through this galaxy, leading to the beautiful ring on the outside the wheel. And also this kind of spoke structure, which is a little bit spiraled. So incredible amount of detail here. This is the kind of thing that theorists will go in their computers and seek to model. They will do, simulate a galaxy collision and see what it would take to reproduce this, what kinds of interactions happen. And that’s how they learn about it. So if you ask how they study this image, a lot of it is matching computer models to the observational data to see how well we understand it.

Stump:

So when a galaxy collides with another galaxy, what what’s happening here? Are stars just smashing into each other and becoming bigger stars or what what happens when galaxies collide?

Haarsma:

Okay, the stars typically do not collide with each other. That’s very rare. So remember how we said Alpha Centauri is so far away. Four light years away. So if you picture the sun is the size of a tennis ball, Alpha Centauri would be 1000 miles away. Like way across the continent.

Stump:

So little chance of hitting each other. 

Haarsma:

So little chance of hitting each other when the two galaxies collide. But in between us and Alpha Centauri might be this big, diffuse cloud of dust and gas. And so when the two galaxies collide, those gas clouds slam into each other and where they slam into each other, they get denser and new stars will form there. So you can get a lot of fireworks, but it’s not from the stars themselves colliding, it’s from the gas and dust colliding.

Stump:

Okay, so this one, as we said, is very pretty, has very bright colors. But now these aren’t really colors are they we’re looking at? How are we seeing this, these light wavelengths that aren’t actually visible to us?

Haarsma:

Right, because everything in this picture is not what our eyes could see. So only the instruments can see it. And then we color code in ways that our eyes can see so that we can appreciate it. And so they pick the colors, somewhat arbitrarily. Sometimes they pick them just because it looks pretty, but much more often they’re seeking to convey something with the colors. So usually, longer wavelengths of light they’ll display as redder colors. And shorter wavelengths, though displays bluer colors.

Stump:

So this is a philosopher question here. I’m a little worried about the distance between the raw data that’s being collected and then these finished, polished, touched up pictures that are presented for public consumption. It kind of feels like when you see a movie that’s based on real events, but I’m always wondering, now which parts are real and which parts aren’t? Are my worries about this sort of thing unfounded, that these really are I mean, this really is light wavelengths. It’s just that we can’t detect it. But it has to be translated into something that we can see. Or I mean, how far away from the real reality do these pictures go? Are we looking at photoshopped touched up pictures that are deep fakes, we’re never sure what’s real anymore?

Haarsma:

No, no, no, no, no, not nearly like that. So the data that comes in, and with my astronomy students, we actually would practice this process, you have to take a lot of calibration data, and to show how the instrument is working, what are the typical noise level, where are the artifacts due to the instrument, and then you take your real data and the real data, the first image that you get is full of extra speckles and streaks, stuff from the camera itself stuff from the, say, there’s a meteor that goes through your image, or, you know, if you’re on Earth, you get all this other stuff. And then you have, you do all this processing, and then to remove the artifacts, then you add together a bunch of images. But these processes have been established, these methods over decades, with everybody testing them and verifying them. So there’s some good best practices to make sure you are getting the real astronomical data out there. When we see something funky in the images, then people really dig into it and are seeking to do everything to verify, is this a real thing? Or is it some weird artifact?

Stump:

And so there’s no possible or at least very little possibility that we’re somehow filtering out the wrong stuff?

Haarsma:

Very little, because we’re very aware of that as astronomers that that’s a possibility. So a different image, that first image of a black hole, you remember that? That came out a couple years ago, they actually had two independent teams, or maybe three, who were independently analyzing the raw data to see what answer they would get, what image they would get, because they were so worried about this effect of what happens if your preconceptions are affecting how you reduce the data. And I think they even use different algorithms to really control for that kind of thing. So when it’s critical, they’re very aware of that need and make sure it’s not impacting the data.

Stump:

Okay, that makes me feel a little better. Okay, let’s look at the, what’s called Webb’s first deep field. This is amazing to me, seeing all of these little splotches that are galaxies so far away. So anyone who’s been on a zoom call with you sees a print of the Hubble’s deep field, which was amazing back then, but this one’s like high def now compared to that. So what are we looking at? And maybe the another question is, when are we looking   given the fact of how far away these things are? What are we seeing from how long ago?

Haarsma:

Ha, yes. So this is focusing on a region that is a particular galaxy cluster. SMACS 0723. And that galaxy cluster is located 4.6 billion light years away. So that means the light we are seeing left it 4.6 billion years ago. 

And for any of our listeners who are like, oh, just a second, that doesn’t sound like the 1000s of years in Genesis. I completely understand, this was like my number one question before I got into the field of astronomy and you can read tons more in my books and on the BioLogos website about how we put that together. And in Genesis, we’re learning so much about the who and the why of creation. But when we look at the natural world, we can see the how and the when, and the when in this case is billions of years ago. 

So when you look really deep in this image, at the very faintest smudges things in the background, you are seeing galaxies much further away, going back to nearly the beginning of the universe, maybe only a few 100 million years after the beginning, okay, I know a few 100 million years is a very, very long time. But in astronomical terms, that is like really quick after the beginning. And we’re seeing some of the very first galaxies in the universe and very faint things in the background.

Stump:

So some of the things we see also in this picture are  real bright stars in the middle. Is that just a star in the foreground that we’re seeing? Or is that also a galaxy a long, long, long way away?

Haarsma:

That’s a star. So, think all the ones where you can see the the six spokes coming out, those are stars.

Stump:

Sp that’s something local in our galax?

Haarsma:

It is. And when the astronomers are doing the research on this picture, that’s one of the ways it’s—see they’re showing you what it actually looks like here with the star. But for the research purposes, they’ll do everything they can to remove that star and the artifacts, so they can study the things behind it.

Stump:

And then some of them look a little bit blurred. Like they’re smeared into a line. What are we seeing there?

Haarsma:

We are seeing gravitational lensing. 

Stump: 

One of your favorite things.

Haarsma: 

It is!

Stump: 

Tell us about that. 

Haarsma:

I studied it for my thesis. So in gravitational lensing, we have the huge mass that is this cluster, there’s 1000s of galaxies here. And there’s also a lot of dark matter, and all of that mass is actually distorting space time. So in Einstein’s theory of general relativity, his model of gravity is that there’s a fabric to space time and that fabric can get pulled and distorted. And in this galaxy cluster, it’s a lot of mass, it’s distorted a lot. And so it is bending the light of things behind it. So you’ll have a distant faint galaxy, that’s nearly behind this galaxy cluster. But then it gets warped and magnified into these long, curved arcs. It’s a little bit like a crazy house mirror, where you’re standing in front of it, you’re you know, you’re not seeing it as it actually is, you’re seeing it distorted by space. And so then a lot of the research on this will be to model the mass of this cluster and then what those galaxies look like, and an undistorted way back calculated and see what they would have looked like.

Stump:

So thousands and thousand of galaxies we’re seeing in this picture, how much of the sky are we looking at here? 

Haarsma:

Oh, it is tiny. So this portion of the sky, they are saying, if you hold up a grain of sand at arm’s length, that’s how big it is.

Stump:

That is unbelievable. And presumably, it would look about the same no matter which direction we looked into space.

Haarsma:

Similar. So this one is pointed at a galaxy cluster. So you know, a couple of grains of sand over, you wouldn’t be seeing a galaxy cluster. But you’d still be seeing lots of galaxies everywhere. We’ve looked as deep as this, to be able to see what’s there. It’s not just empty black space, it is filled with this rich assortment of 1000s of galaxies. So it’s really the wallpaper of the whole universe,

Stump:

Which is pretty remarkable. And it’s very difficult for me to get my mind around. And even more so when I see astronomers saying things like, and it may be infinite. So I’ve got to ask you about this. Because I remember one time riding in a car with you and Loren—for our listeners who don’t know, Deb’s husband, Loren also has a PhD in physics, but from that other school in Cambridge, Massachusetts—but I asked the two of you about the claims that our universe is infinite. And I think I remember being satisfied with the explanation at the time. But that was a while ago, and I couldn’t rehearse that explanation. And now so help me help me out here again. If the Big Bang was 13.7 billion years ago, and at that time, if we can even use the word, all matter and energy we’re like in a point. So isn’t it no matter how fast it’s expanding, it couldn’t be infinite today, could it? What am I missing here?

Haarsma:

Well, that 13.7 billion years, that is the time since the beginning. We deliberately say in astronomy, the observable universe, and basically that is defined as the portion of the universe, we can see because light has had time to travel to us from that region of space. But we expect that space extends far beyond that. And we expect that because we see in our calculations that the universe going in to one direction versus looking in the other direction, it all looks the same. Everything seems to continue beyond that in much the same way. So a similar density of galaxies, for instance. Now, we can’t prove that that goes infinitely far because we can’t observe anything beyond our observable universe, because it would have taken light 15 billion years to get here and the universe isn’t that old or 20 billion years or whatever. So it’s somewhat of an assumption. But it sure makes the math easier. I can tell you that page one of the cosmology textbook says, “let us assume a uniform universe homogeneous and isotropic. same in all directions.” 

Stump:

So it’s not like you’d bump up against the edge of it somewhere if you ran into it. 

Haarsma:

No. And if you did, you would you would kind of notice things would be different near the edge.

Stump:

Then what is the assumption of that then that there are parts—so that part of space that’s outside of the observable universe, all that stuff wasn’t included in the tiny point of the Big Bang? 

Haarsma:

Ah, it was all in the Big Bang. 

Stump:

Yeah, that’s what I still don’t understand then how it got further than it could go. And so then we get into, what’s this called, inflation, that space itself is stretching out or something?

Haarsma:

Yeah. So our best model of the early universe says that a tiny fraction of a second after the beginning, the universe expanded rapidly by an incredible amount, spreading everything out and leaving what we see here is a relatively small patch of what was part of the original, the very beginning.

Stump:

Okay, so I’ve seen that another of the implications of at least some versions of this inflationary theory is that there may be many, many other universes, the multiverse. Can the Webb telescope shine any light on that question even indirectly for us?

Haarsma:

Well, probably not. So what the Webb telescope is going to do is tell us what’s happened since the development of galaxies in our universe. The multiverse things, we get much more information about that studying the cosmic background, because of microwave background is this radiation leftover from the heat of the Big Bang. And when we observe the structure of that we get this insight into the inflation, of this inflationary model that I sketched briefly. And that inflationary model predicts that there would be other universes. And the inflationary model has predicted things in our universe that have all panned out really well. So when it predicts things about other universes, we have some reason to take that seriously. But we can never observe these other universes. They are by definition outside and beyond ours, so we can’t observe them. So then people ask, Is this even science? Which is a fair question.

Stump:

Didn’t we think though, that originally, you could never observe a black hole and now we have pictures?

Haarsma:

Well, we’ve always said we couldn’t observe light coming out of a black hole, because that’s how it’s defined. It’s defined as a region where no light can get out. So it is black. What we observed there was the stuff just outside of the black hole.

Stump:

Okay. Well, what do you think, though about the possibility of multiple universes?

Haarsma:

Oh, man, what do I personally think? I think the inflationary multiverse has some potential because it does make good predictions in our universe. String theory also has some potential, it’s very mathematically rigorous, it’s making predictions, it’s the best thing going as far as a way to bring together quantum mechanics and general relativity into a unified picture. So those have some potential. I’m not too worried about it on sort of a philosophical, spiritual level, because if there is a multiverse, I believe that’s what God created. And God would have been using that as a way to generate our universe. But if we find that none of the multiverses pan out, and God just made this universe, but ‘just’? This universe is incredible, it’s huge. It’s vast, and there’s nothing ‘just’ about it. So. Yeah.

Stump:

Okay. How about another question that potentially sits at the intersection of cosmology and theology. So why don’t we just point this new telescope at the exoplanets and Alpha Centauri? Could we zoom in pretty close and see what’s going on there? Maybe see some aliens walking around or hovering or maybe however aliens move?

Haarsma:

You can just picture the little green men like waving at you through the telescope, like Marvin the Martian is out there. So it is really, really hard to see something as small as a, you know, like human size on another planet is incredibly hard. Even to see the planet is incredibly hard.

Stump:

Will we be able to actually see the planet though with this telescope?

Haarsma:

Some planets, yes, had been seen with telescopes already, and JWST would be able to see some. And what the easiest way to see them is by the way they plan, it passes in front of their star and then behind their star. So basically, you’re looking at the light of the star. Rather than taking picture of the planet separately, you take pictures of the star, but you take it at different times when you’re looking edge on to its orbit, and then the planet passes in front of the star. At that point, you would see a bit of the starlight blocked, and then the planet keeps orbiting around until it’s behind the star. And then the planet’s light disappears. And so you, as it orbits around, you’re seeing these different stages, and you can subtract out the light of the star and figure out what the light of the planet is.

Stump:

And that’s what we’ve been doing so far, right? So what’s Webb going to be able to do in addition to that?

Haarsma:

Yeah, so we, so far, we’ve been using that method to detect and discover these planets to see which stars have planets going around them, how massive are they? Well, with, and this is a subset of those are really good for observing with the Webb telescope. So Webb is picking out a few of those and observing them in depth. And what they’re going to do is, especially look at the atmospheres of those planets. So Earth’s atmosphere extends a couple of miles up above the surface, which is just this very thin layer compared to the planet. So picture that going around another star, you’ve got the planets already small, and then the atmosphere is very thin layer on it. So they’re going to try and catch, you know, that moment when planets just starting to cross the edge of its star just starting to pass in front of it or behind it, and all you see is a little bit of atmosphere different from the planet. Anyway, it’s a very tiny sliver of light you have to catch and that sliver of light, and it’s only for a short amount of time. So what you need is a really big telescope, which is what it is to detect a lot of light. And then you take that little bit of light that you get from that and spread it out into a spectrum. Just like when you send light through a prism and it makes a rainbow, we spread out the light into a spectrum here. And then you can start to see the molecules that are in that atmosphere, you start to see different, we call them spectral lines, but the signature of oxygen or nitrogen or sulfuric acid, or whatever’s in the atmosphere of that planet. And that’s what’s been very, very hard to do. We’ve done it a time or two before Webb, but now Webb is going to be able to do that. And that was one of the other, quote, images released, it was actually a graph with an artist’s conception of a planet behind it. But you know, we’ll take it because that graph showed we can detect water in the atmosphere of a planet going around another star, and they just did it right off the bat, and they’re gonna be able to do so much more now.

Stump:

So then, presumably, planets that have life on them have a particular atmospheric signature when you do this spectral analysis? Is that the idea?

Haarsma:

That’s the idea. So on Earth, we know that Earth’s atmosphere changed as life arised, when bacterial life grew and multiplied on the earth, it gradually changed the atmosphere to have more oxygen in it. And even today, plants are giving off oxygen and repopulating the oxygen in the atmosphere. Otherwise, oxygen could easily burn up and not be there. So if we detect oxygen in an atmosphere of a planet around another star, that’s a good sign that there is life there.

Stump:

Okay, so back to this conjunction of astronomy and theology. How important is the question of whether there’s life on other planets?

Haarsma:

Well, aren’t you interested? 

Stump:

Yeah, I’m very interested. I wonder what’s riding on it? Is it similar to the answer you gave them about multiverses? Where we just say, if there are that’s cool, if there’s not, that’s okay, too. I’m wondering if there’s something more riding on it. Is there? I mean, would it be a huge, huge deal to say we have discovered other life? Or is it just expected? Is it just well, yes, of course we’re going to but we just can’t get there yet.

Haarsma:

Oh, yeah. Well, I don’t know if it’s “of course” or not. So there’s—a lot is riding on it because people have very different views, expectations. So I have heard and now I’m thinking of scientists and theologians, scientists who are believers and Christian theologians, who have very different views on this after thinking about it a lot. Some who say, well, life on Earth, it is so hard to get life from non-life and it took so long for multicellular life to rise on Earth, it is just very unlikely for that to happen anywhere else. Or theologically, they think that we would have no theological expectation of God making life anywhere else. So discovering actual life somewhere else would be important for them that’s actually counter to their expectations. I know other believers who have completely the other expectation, saying, oh, the universe is bound to have life. Look at how many planets there are. We now know that there’s lots of earthlike planets. We didn’t used to know that. That’s been just 20 years,

Stump:

Like thousands, or it’s like thousands of total planets that we’ve discovered. exoplanets.

Haarsma:

We’ve detected over 5000 planets around other stars. But from those 5000, we can look at where they are and the types and we can now expect that if we were able to observe every star in our galaxy, on average, each star would have a planet, an earthlike planet. There’s billions of earthlike planets out there. Now, is life likely on those? And there’s some Christians who say, Oh, definitely totally expected and God’s intention to create an abundance of life. So but what on every one would there be humanlike life? Like life that is capable of knowing God and loving God back? Now that’s an entirely, that’s another question altogether. 

Stump:

So which of those astronomer theology theologians would you put yourself into?

Haarsma:

I’m in a very undecided middle. I don’t know. [Jim laughs]

Stump:

All right. Well, the pictures are spectacular. And it seems to me that astronomers have a distinct advantage in capturing imaginations and getting audiences to ooh, and aah, with the pictures that they can show, and I’m afraid my discipline, philosophy, seems more often just to inspire skepticism in people than awe and wonder. Why are we so captivated by space and wanting to learn more about it?

Haarsma:

Oh, yeah, everybody is. Some of it is that we all have the experience of just looking up at the night sky. That is available to everyone. And most everyone, when they get a chance to be in a dark space and look up and take a few moments, they are filled with a sense of awe and wonder, to some degree, sometimes to a great degree. And I think it’s something we feel our place in the universe, we feel that we, the universe is this vast, amazing thing. And I think in medieval times that usually well, and even many times today, it makes people feel closer to God or closer to the spiritual. Some people makes them think that they feel very small and insignificant. People have very different impressions. But people are processing it on that level of God and meaning and significance and sheer beauty. Most people are looking for the night sky aren’t going well, let’s count how many stars there are and measure their properties. Astronomers do that. But it’s, so that’s what’s so interesting about these images is they are showing us astronomical results. But they and all of us are immediately putting other layers of meaning on it. Like, it is beautiful, it is wondrous. It is telling me something about the universe and meaning and that just happens.

Stump:

So for you, give us a Christian astronomer’s interpretation of Psalm 19. In light of these pictures, how did these images declare the Glory of God?

Haarsma:

Ah, yes, well, in many ways. So we read in Psalm 19, “the heavens are declaring the glory of God.” In other passages we read of God’s power or God’s beauty. And I’ve read and loved the Bible my whole life. And I read along these passages and yep, okay. Yep, God is glorious and powerful. Yep. And then you look up at the night sky, and you look at these images, and somehow it comes home to your senses, like, Whoa, it is really, truly beautiful and powerful and glorious. And it expands your imagination, your capacity to ponder the amazingness of God by looking at these things that God has made. So I think that’s a huge way the heavens are declaring God’s glory.

Stump:

What do you make of your colleagues and astronomers who don’t believe and their response to these pictures is what? And I guess I ask that thinking of the GK Chesterton quip who said “the worst day for an atheist is when they’re feeling thankful and have no one to thank.” And I wonder if there’s something similar for awe and the wonder that these pictures Inspire? Does it feel a little hollow to express awe and wonder at the universe itself instead of the Creator of the Universe?

Haarsma:

Well, I think so, I really, I am, I love that there is a person to thank, that there is a person behind the universe who created all of this with intention. And I will, I’ll come back to secular views in the second but if you think of the extravagance we’re seeing here, we’re seeing things that, for the first time with this telescope that we’ve not seen before, and yet they were there all along, for billions of years, across vast distances of space. This was not made just for us. God seems to have created out of this exuberance and extravagance to create this huge multiplicity of wondrous things in the universe. And so God must—I get the sense of God’s delighting in his creation. And now God gets to see us in communion with him delighting in it, as we discover it for the first time. Just like when, Jim, you talk about your little grandson discovering things for the first time, and you get to sense that wonder all over again.

Stump:

It’s pretty fun,. 

Haarsma:

It is. Now, but for my secular colleagues, in their mental landscape, this is an end in itself, seeing the beauty of these things is, it’s wondrous, and it’s delightful. And they usually don’t need to see something beyond that. Some do, there are some amazing stories of how people are drawn to God for the first time, by seeing some of these wonders, they get overwhelmed by a sense, like, there’s more to it than this, there’s something more here there’s something of a spiritual nature, I want to look into it, and, and believe in something larger. But for a lot of people, they don’t seem to have that sense. It’s just enough full stop to see the beauty of the images.

Stump:

And I don’t want to denigrate that, but it almost feels to be especially when we’re talking about a telescope that sees things that are out of the visible realm. It almost feels like they’re not seeing all the wavelengths that we can see when we bring the spiritual dimension into that. Is that a—I don’t know, is that a valid comparison to say that people of faith people who know and are known by God, are able to see more of the reality?

Haarsma:

It feels like it. Yeah.

Stump:

At least that’s what you and I say.

Haarsma:

That’s what we say. But you know, I get that experience, too, with, you know, some of our great coworkers here at BioLogos. And they’re walking through a forest, they’re seeing so many things that I’m missing. Plants and bird species and features that I need them to point out to me. So maybe it’s a sense in this too, if we pointed out to people like oh, wow, there is something there I never pause to notice.

Stump:

Well, let’s end with a more practical question. How might churches use these images? Can they be incorporated into, more intentionally, into the life of faith for a community?

Haarsma:

Oh, I think it’s a great opportunity for churches. So my church, the Sunday after these images came out here, they had those images on the screen. They had readings from Psalm 8 and Psalm 19. They had hymns like How Great Thou Art, when I consider all the worlds thy hands have made, and it was just such a delight to bring that right into the worship service. Because so many people had seen those images. And that’s a pretty easy thing for churches to do. You don’t have to get into any difficult issues right off the bat, you can just go and praise God as the Creator. And yet it’s such a wonderful step for showing everyone in the congregation like hey, this is something that can be part of my life of faith, especially for young people, young people who love science. Young people are just watching the news a lot. They don’t always see those connections between those things they love and what’s going on in church. And when you can draw that in. They’re like, wow, church might be relevant to what I’m interested in, after all. There’s studies that show like, was it 50% of church going teenagers say they think the church has rejected much of what science has to say about the world. And it’s not always clear where they’re picking this up. The church is specifically speaking against it, their own church or they just think the church would, but if you bring in recent science discoveries into your worship or in as a sermon, illustration that shows people like, hey, my church actually thinks about science and takes it seriously. 

Another thing you can do is for a Sunday school class, really, at any age, you can bring these images and just talk a little about them and see what questions the kids have. Give them a space to ask the questions they have about nature about the creative world. And don’t feel like you have to answer them all yourself. Other studies have shown that what young people want, and really what we all want is not to hear somebody give the answers to our questions as much as to come alongside us and wonder with us and see like, oh, yeah, that is an interesting question. Maybe we can figure it out. And what do you think about this? And I think that’s a great opportunity to open a conversation about science in a broader sense, and encourage young people if they want to go into science careers, whether it’s astronomy or something else.

Stump:

Well, very cool. Well, we look forward to more images from the telescope. And yes, I look forward to talking to you about them again, when some more come out. This has been fun.

Haarsma: 

I think you’ll have a hard time getting me to not talk.

Stump: 

Well, very good. Thanks so much.

Haarsma:  

So good to be with you. Yes, oh, good questions down. All right. Yeah, my question is

Credits

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by 

the Fetzer Institute, the John Templeton Foundation, and by individual donors who contribute to BioLogos. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Nate Mulder is our assistant producer. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. 

BioLogos offices are located in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the Grand River watershed. If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum or visit our website, biologos.org, where you will find articles, videos and other resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening. 


Featured guest

Deb Haarsma

Deborah Haarsma

Deborah Haarsma is President of BioLogos. She is an astronomer and frequent speaker on modern science and Christian faith at research universities, churches, and public venues like the National Press Club. Her work appears in several recent books, including Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Design and Christ and the Created Order.  She wrote the book Origins with her husband and fellow physicist, Loren Haarsma, presenting the agreements and disagreements among Christians regarding the history of life and the universe.  She edited the anthology Delight in Creation: Scientists Share Their Work with the Church with Rev. Scott Hoezee. Previously, Haarsma served as professor and chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Calvin University. She is an experienced research scientist, with several publications in the Astrophysical Journal and the Astronomical Journal on extragalactic astronomy and cosmology. She has studied large galaxies, galaxy clusters, the curvature of space, and the expansion of the universe using telescopes around the world and in orbit.  Haarsma completed her doctoral work in astrophysics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and her undergraduate work in physics and music at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota. She and Loren enjoy science fiction and classical music, and live in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

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