The James Webb Telescope: Unveiling the Vast Universe and Redefining Our Understanding of Life, Science, and Religion. - A Voz de Pramod!

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Sunday, February 26, 2023

The James Webb Telescope: Unveiling the Vast Universe and Redefining Our Understanding of Life, Science, and Religion.

 (This article was originally written in Konkani for ARSO - Konkani Monthly and published in December 2022. Here, I present an English version of the article for my blog readers. The content remains the same, but the language has been adapted for English-speaking audiences. I hope you enjoy reading it!)

Perchance you own an acreage of Areca nut plantation, and yet it is but a solitary tree that deigns to grace your verdant garden with its bountiful yield. The idea may seem incredulous, but lo and behold, you find yourself standing in the very presence of this arboreal specimen. Alas, your vision fails to discern the other nut-bearing trees in the vicinity, though you know them to be present. So tell me, my dear compatriot, would you venture to aver that only this tree bears fruit while the rest languish barren?


A comparable scenario unfolds on our precious planet Earth, a mere speck in the vastness of the cosmos. Our celestial home is but one in a plethora of planets within our solar system, revolving around our star, one of a billion or so that twinkle within the Milky Way Galaxy. And yet, the galaxy itself is a mere mite in the grand scheme of the universe, with billions of galaxies stretching out into the infinite expanse. Given this expansive vista, it is a statistical improbability that life exists solely on our planet, and not on myriad others, much like it would be improbable for a single tree in the garden to bear nuts while the rest languish barren.

Behold the Earth, a mighty boulder that has journeyed through the vast expanse of space for an estimated 4.5 billion years. We, the Homo sapiens, have only been mere passengers on this celestial vessel for a paltry 300,000 years. Yet, during this brief period, our primitive ancestors were convinced that the Earth was nothing but a flat plane, with the sky appearing as a sunken vessel within it. From the deck of a boat, they would gaze out at endless stretches of water with reeds bending beneath the surface. The sun would rise in the east and set in the west, while the moon would cast its enchanting glow on the world below. The stars, as seen by these early humans, would travel across the sky from east to west, with only one, the Pole Star, remaining steadfast in its position.


From such a simplistic worldview, countless religions have arisen over time. Even the biblical creation story states that on the fourth day of creation, God created the stars, "the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night." But it was not until relatively recently, a few hundred years ago, that humanity discovered the true nature of our planet. We learned that the Earth is a round body that rotates around the sun, providing the conditions necessary for life to thrive.

 With the aid of revolutionary tools like Galileo's telescope in 1609, we have made incredible strides in understanding the universe. We have even landed on the moon, a celestial body that God created to illuminate the night. And in the past three decades, we have launched telescopes like the Hubble into Earth's orbit, offering us a greater perspective of the cosmos.

 But now, we are on the cusp of an even more momentous discovery. The James Webb Space Telescope, a remarkable feat of human ingenuity, is on the verge of being launched. In no time at all, this wondrous instrument will give us a glimpse into the very heart of the universe, revealing not only the nut trees in our garden but the countless other fruit-bearing plants that grow within it.

 The James Webb Telescope and its Engineering Marvels :

The James Webb Telescope, a true marvel of technology, has been causing ripples in the scientific community. This impressive infrared telescope is a testament to human ingenuity, on par with the one that was placed on the Moon half a century ago. The installation of a large telescope within the Earth's atmosphere is impractical, as the atmosphere absorbs most infrared rays before they can reach the surface. Therefore, the telescope must be placed outside the Earth's atmosphere. However, another significant issue arises as most of the Sun's heat falls on the telescope if installed in the orbit of the Sun. Even an object that is hot emits its infrared rays, which could disrupt the accurate data collection process of the telescope. The solution lies in placing the James Webb Telescope at the L2 Lagrange point, a space between the orbit of the Sun and Earth, allowing it to remain stationary and orbit the Sun from the back of the Earth, thus reducing heat. However, keeping the telescope at a frigid temperature of -223 degrees Celsius is no easy feat. The scientists, therefore, created five heat shields, thinner than a human hair, using a material called Kapton. These heat shields were then delicately slid into the rocket and released at the L2 Lagrange point, marking a magnificent engineering feat.


One of the major challenges encountered during the design of the James Webb Telescope was the curved mirror. The importance of having a large mirror to clearly capture distant objects by gathering more light cannot be overstated. Due to the long journey of light waves from distant sources, the phenomenon of 'Red shift' occurs, necessitating the need for a larger mirror. However, the challenge arose as to how to accommodate such a large mirror within the telescope's configuration.

 Scientists came up with a unique solution, as simply keeping the large mirror inside the rocket was not feasible. The solution involved cutting a mirror with a diameter of 6.5 meters into 18 hexagonal pieces, rolling them together, and releasing and reattaching them upon reaching the designated location. This innovative approach proved to be a remarkable success.


The James Webb Telescope required nearly 30 years of work and cost an estimated Rs 80,000 crore. The configuration involved 344 delicate and narrow functions, and the failure of even one could jeopardize the entire mission. Despite these challenges, scientists overcame all obstacles and successfully installed the telescope, which is poised to unlock new discoveries in the field of astronomy.

 Exploring the Universe: One Year with the James Webb Telescope

 On Christmas Day 2021, the James Webb Telescope embarked on its space mission, marking a year since its launch. Since beginning operations six months ago, the telescope has captured stunning images of the universe. Its ability to see stars 250 million years after the Big Bang, which occurred approximately 14 billion years ago, has allowed it to capture images of the Galaxy, estimated to be 13.4 billion years old, providing valuable insight into the universe's early stages when it was just 2% of its current age. In this sense, the James Webb Telescope is a time machine, transporting us back in time and offering invaluable data for scientists to analyze.

The telescope has already surprised scientists with its discoveries, including stunning images of the Carina Nebula, located 7,600 light-years away from Earth, and the Southern Ring Nebula, located 2,000 light-years away. Moreover, the James Webb Telescope discovered that the exoplanet WASP-96 b, located 1150 light-years away, contains water, though its temperature of 530 degrees Celsius makes life on the planet impossible. Another exciting discovery was the planet TRAPPIST-1e, which is only 40 light-years away from Earth and is considered a potential candidate for supporting life.


Over the next decade, the James Webb Telescope will continue its mission of exploring the universe and capturing its wonders. Its groundbreaking discoveries and advanced capabilities have undoubtedly marked a new era of scientific exploration, one in which the secrets of the universe are waiting to be uncovered.

 The Clash of Science and Religion: Redefining Our Understanding of God's Creation.

For several years, scientists have claimed that there are millions of planets similar to Earth that support life. However, the religious and spiritual literature that emerged during the period when people believed the Earth was flat has become shockingly outdated. With the arrival of the James Webb Telescope, religious leaders who demand scientific "proof" for the existence of extraterrestrial life will soon have to submit to scrutiny.

If evidence of life on another planet is discovered, this religious literature will become obsolete. As Catholics, we have a unique opportunity to redefine our understanding of God's creation. In the 16th century, many astronomers were persecuted by the Church for contradicting the "Word of God." However, in 1992, Pope John Paul II publicly repented for the Church's erroneous condemnation of Galileo's theory. According to Matthew 16:19, Jesus told Peter, "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven." Brother Guy J. Consolmagno, SJ, of the Vatican Observatory, remarked that the James Webb Telescope's imagery was astonishing and that God's knowledge allows humans to unravel the mysteries of the universe.


Meanwhile, in India, we face a dilemma as science and technology advance. Despite being in a favorable position for a few years, we are regressing to the Stone Age. Cow urine is being touted as a cure-all, and astrology has become more popular than astronomy. There is a significant demand for a modern scientific research center, yet the government seems more interested in funding temple and monument construction projects. We have the remarkable Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO), but many of its projects have been unsuccessful in recent years. A former ISRO director stated to the media that ISRO scientists hold superstitious beliefs and rely on conjecture when launching rockets. They visit religious places to worship the rocket, believing that its success depends on the absence of Rahukal. Can our country progress if blind faith is endorsed in government institutions, particularly during the James Webb Telescope era?


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