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What the Webb Telescope Tells Us About God’s Creation

Karin Oberg

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Have you seen the recent images from the James Webb Telescope? Catholic convert and Harvard astrochemist, Karin Öberg joins us to examine the recent images and what they tell us about God, the beginnings of our universe, and bug people.


Cy Kellett:

Hello, and welcome to Focus, the Catholic Answers Podcast for living, understanding, and defending your Catholic faith. Recently, we all got to see some magnificent images from a magnificent piece of technology, the James Webb Telescope. Out there in space, somewhere, looking deep into the past using its various sensors. And this raises a tremendous sense of awe. A tremendous sense of … the questioning mind gets aroused by that. And when we have those kinds of questions, we turn to Dr. Karin Oberg from Harvard University. She’s an Astrochemist from Harvard University. She’s going to be using some of these images in her work, and she’s also just a fantastic, wonderful teacher of the Catholic faith. So a perfect person to ask these questions. Here’s Dr. Karin Oberg.

Like everybody else on earth, recently here at Catholic Answers, we saw those pictures from the Webb Telescope and were astounded. And Darin and I both had the same thought, we got to talk with Dr. Karin Oberg about this. This is the one person in the world you’d want to talk about these images with. Dr. Karin Oberg is a Professor of Astronomy at Harvard University. And we consider her a friend, because she’s always very kind and takes the time to talk to us about the intersection between science and faith. Dr. Karin Oberg, thanks for being with us.

Dr. Karin Öberg:

My pleasure to be here, as always.

Cy Kellett:

Okay. So you saw that first image, I guess, that the rest of the world saw. Maybe you could just tell us as a scientist, as somebody who, this is your field, what do you think when you see an image like that?

Dr. Karin Öberg:

I actually think, I think about the same as everyone else. You’re just struck by the beauty, like what kind of amazing universe that we inhabit. And that we are in an era where we have the tools to actually start uncovering both some of the beauty, but also the structure. So the truth about the kind of cosmos that we inhabit.

Cy Kellett:

That’s … because seeing the beauty is actually an important part of it. If we’re going to try to understand the universe, understanding its beauty is part of that.

Dr. Karin Öberg:

Absolutely. And I think it is part of the mission of this scientist, is to reveal the truth and the beauty. And it turns out, they go together. The truth is beautiful, and beauty is something that I think is a guiding principle for most scientists towards the truth, including in astronomy.

Cy Kellett:

There is almost a bias among scientists … I don’t know if bias is the right word or if it’s a habit of mind. That the more beautiful an explanation is, the more likely it is to be true.

Dr. Karin Öberg:

We do have a beauty bias, but not all biases are bad. I think this is actually one of the good ones, both because there seems to be some connection between the beauty of an equation and its truth. And in some sense as Catholics, I don’t think we should be completely shocked that that is the case, because we know that these two should really be one thing. And it’s only us as humans that need to separate the two to make sense of the word, most of the time.

Cy Kellett:

I’m struck by the fact that some people look at the image, the same image with the same beauty, and also the same kind of awe inspiring nature. You’re looking at a field that has more galaxies than people were expecting in it, galaxies that are more than 13 billion years old in it. And here’s the thing. One person looks at that and says, how great God is. And another person looks at that and says basically, there’s no God.

I mean, nature is just so magnificent and almost a … not worship of nature. I don’t want to say it that way. But a kind of like, naturalism comes from this. What do you make of the fact that we respond differently, we don’t come to a shared conclusion?

Dr. Karin Öberg:

I am not sure that actually we do respond that differently, at least initially. I think one of the beauties of astronomy is that it seems to be a unifying thing that, whether you ask people if they’re on the right or the left, religious non-religious, I think they all feel the same kind of wonder and awe. I think that’s the first reaction when they see this kind of image. And I think it’s one of those things that’s actually really, right now, quite rare, but also really important to actually see that there are still things that unite us. And I think beauty and truth, when revealed as powerfully like this actually does.

And then, of course, once you start thinking about it, I mean, I think people do come to different conclusions in trying to explain its origin. But I think the initial reaction is very, very similar for all of us.

Cy Kellett:

So in the work that you do, you look at colors and try to figure out chemistry.

Dr. Karin Öberg:

True.

Cy Kellett:

So what will these images do for someone like you?

Dr. Karin Öberg:

So the images of the galaxies are not something that I’m going to be working with directly. But there was another image that was released, which was probably the most boring looking image. So there were five, total. Four beautiful images, and then one wiggle. But the wiggle is the one that I happen to be the most excited about, which shows that the colors of a planet from another star reveals that it has water on it.

Cy Kellett:

Wow.

Dr. Karin Öberg:

So that’s the kind of thing that I’m going to be using James Webb for. Is to look at these, what initially looks boring, but actually has a lot of really cool information in it.

Cy Kellett:

Yeah. So among the things that … I mean, you can see galaxies far, farther away and with greater clarity than ever before. But this is also true of planets. And you’re more interested in planets in the work that you do.

Dr. Karin Öberg:

That’s true. So James Webb was really designed to do two things. One is to really figure out how the first galaxies formed, really take us back in time. Almost as close to the big bang as we can, to see how the first stars and galaxies came together and understand that early era of our universe. But the other thing is to understand planets around other stars. To look at their atmospheres, to see how often they have things like water in them.

And that’s closer to what I’m interested in. And that’s, right now, what I’m the most excited about. But what I’m really excited about is that in about a month or so, we start getting data from my program, which is not looking at planets that are fully formed, but are at planet nurseries. To look at the chemistry in those planet-forming discs around young stars.

Cy Kellett:

Why are planets still forming? I mean, the universe has been around a long time. What’s going on that we’re still getting planets?

Dr. Karin Öberg:

Yeah. So every year in our galaxy, so the Milky Way, about seven new stars form with a planetary system. So new planets are forming all the time. And, why? Well, stars in general form from a patch of the gas and dust in the universe collapsing in on itself. And some of that is primordial, comes from the big bang. But some of it is also what has been spewed back into our galaxy from exploding stars.

So there is this ecosystem in the galaxy where material goes into a star. It’s burned there, forming new elements. And it gets put back into the galaxy, seeding new stars and new planets. But yeah, there are new planets all the time.

Cy Kellett:

So out of all the stars, I imagine the number is probably … I don’t know. More than 1,000 stars in the Milky Way. Maybe two, 3000. How many stars in the Milky Way?

Dr. Karin Öberg:

300 billion. Give or take.

Cy Kellett:

Yeah. I knew it was more than 1,000. All right. So out of all these stars, what percentage of them have a planet around them?

Dr. Karin Öberg:

Probably all. I mean, close to all. So planets are really common. I think that’s one of the big realizations in astronomy the past decade or so, is that when stars form, they form with planets.

Cy Kellett:

So you’re looking at planetary chemistry. And is that … did I say that right, or did I say that wrong? You looked uncertain.

Dr. Karin Öberg:

Well, when I think about planetary chemistry, we think we already have a planet. So that’s what a lot of astronomers will use James Webb for, is to look at the molecules that are in the atmospheres of planets. And that’s super cool. But what we will do is look at the gas and dust that are currently getting fed into young planets.

Cy Kellett:

I see.

Dr. Karin Öberg:

So the building blocks, the chemistry of the building blocks of planets.

Cy Kellett:

Does that have a … I guess, is there a practical use for that? Or does that tell us something about our own? I hate to … I don’t want to be insulting to a scientist. What’s the practical use of this? But is there?

Dr. Karin Öberg:

So the truth is very practical. It’s an important human need to figure out what kind of universe we live in. But it does also … it has no material benefits for us to do this. But it does tell us something also about where our solar system come from. So where our planet, earth, where our planet got water from. Did it come with the planet or did it have to get delivered later? Is the kind of question that we can help answering also with these observations.

Cy Kellett:

Okay. So is anybody going to look out there at a planet and they’re going to see … I’m talking about, exoplanet is the word for one that’s not in our solar system, right?

Dr. Karin Öberg:

Yeah. That’s right.

Cy Kellett:

So you’re looking at exoplanets with this. Are they going to see, like a forest somewhere and go, look at that. It’s living things. Is that going to happen?

Dr. Karin Öberg:

No, unfortunately not.

Cy Kellett:

Is that because there’s no life out there?

Dr. Karin Öberg:

So all we can do with James Webb … which is not that little. But still, all we can do is to look at what gases is in the atmosphere of a planet. So we can’t tell anything about what’s on the surface of a planet, just in the atmosphere. And if we get really lucky, we might be able to detect the kind of molecules that you would only expect if there was life on the planet.

But I would say that’s really more for the next generation telescopes. And with James Webb, we’re trying to understand, what is the planet like globally? And if we get lucky, we might see some signs of life. But we’re going to need some luck to get there, even if life is common.

Cy Kellett:

So that’s not the primary mission. The primary mission is other things.

Dr. Karin Öberg:

We need an even bigger telescope to look for signs of life than James Webb. So maybe in another decade or two, we will actually be there.

Cy Kellett:

Will the Webb Telescope tell us anything about our own solar system? Will we look at objects here in our solar system or no, is it entirely outward looking?

Dr. Karin Öberg:

No. People will look also in our solar system and try to also characterize some of the planets and moons. We actually, we don’t know as much about our solar system as one might think. We don’t know what Saturn is made of, to a large extent, for example. We don’t know us under the surface of Europa and Enceladus, and other moons that have an ocean underneath. So there’s a lot more to learn about our own solar system as well. And Webb will definitely help there as well.

Cy Kellett:

So I am anxious to know about this looking back in time thing, though. We’re used to, if you’re looking at a star that’s 500 light years away, that’s 500 years ago. So about the time of Columbus that that the light left that star. But now we’re talking about on an entirely different scale. We’re talking about … my understanding was that the universe that we have is something less than 14 billion years old.

Dr. Karin Öberg:

That’s right.

Cy Kellett:

But approaching 14 billion. And that we’re now looking more than 13 billion years into the past. So we’re seeing light that’s far closer to the beginning of the universe than to our day now.

Dr. Karin Öberg:

That’s right. I mean, it’s amazing when you think about it, just how much access to the earliest universe that we are getting with this telescope. And with it teaching us something about how the galaxies like our Milky Way, how that came to be in the first place. Which is not necessarily something we understand very well right now.

Cy Kellett:

How old is the Milky Way?

Dr. Karin Öberg:

We think it’s around 10 billion years or so.

Cy Kellett:

Oh, so these are galaxies that were billions of years before the Milky Way?

Dr. Karin Öberg:

Yeah. It’s not one of the original galaxies. It has changed some, compared to the very first galaxies. And it does look different as well.

Cy Kellett:

I mean, I suppose people always want to relate this … astronomy in particular does this to us. We want to relate what we’re seeing to the act of creation. I mean, in a certain way, this is not true, I suppose, philosophically. But in another way, it is true that the farther back in time, you look the closer to the moment of creation you are.

Now, I suppose, a certain way for a Catholic to understand it would be this moment, now is the moment of creation. Every moment God is actively creating, or else there’s nothing here. But do you understand what I’m saying? I think it makes us almost … the wonder about, we’re getting closer and closer to looking at the moment of creation here.

Dr. Karin Öberg:

Yeah. And I think there is something beautiful about starting to get closer to the beginning of the story. Even if creation is ongoing, it’s always happening. There’s a part of the story that we haven’t seen before that we are now getting access to that is setting the context for everything else. It’s bringing us back, closer and closer to the beginning. So I think there is something special about that, even though creation should not be seen as a one time, done deal. That’s not the right Catholic way to see about it.

But there is also something special about the beginning of the story where everything started, and to see how things are unfold over time. That is a powerful thing and I think a powerful way to connect with a Creator and get a glimpse of just how powerful he is and how generous he is. I mean, he didn’t have to give us such a beautiful universe.

Cy Kellett:

Isn’t that something, the way you say that. I think that’s a magnificent way to think about it. I mean, does looking back in time like this give us any information, more information about the big bang? If you had to say, what are the chances that the big bang actually happened, is it 95%, is it 12%? How certain are we about this?

Dr. Karin Öberg:

Yeah, it depends what you mean with the big bang. So the universe is expanding and is expanding out of an initially very hot, very dense [inaudible] that, I would say is certain. We have several different strands of evidence that all come together to show that that’s true. Exactly how it happened or why it happened, or how that initial expansion led to the formation of stars and galaxies, that is part of what James Webb will also help us to figure out.

Cy Kellett:

I see. Okay, okay. So looking back, we … these are beginner galaxies though, right? If you’re looking 13 billion years ago, they’re just like, they’re kind of beginners.

Dr. Karin Öberg:

They are. They are, and they do look different compared to the galaxies we have today. They are smaller. They tend to not have spirals, look a bit more like clumps. So you can tell that something has happened in the universe since that time. And these galaxies, over time, they tend to merge together to form bigger galaxies, and then they develop these structures with the spirals and so on. So it is really an evolving universe that we live in, that does change over time. And I think seeing creation unfold that way is something that is really amazing to be part of.

Cy Kellett:

I do feel amazed by it, and you convey that so beautifully in your, your approach to it. But I have to say, there are many holy people, and I have met many good and holy people who I admire as fellow Christians who say, look, the creation happened in six days. And I don’t in any way feel dismissive of those people because the scripture is … they’re taking God’s word very, very seriously. But I do want to take a moment just to reflect on that as you and I talk about this. What might you as a scientist and a Catholic say to that person?

Dr. Karin Öberg:

Well, I would say a couple of things. One is that it’s part of our tradition to reflect on scripture, including the creation story, using other forms of knowledge. I think St. Augustine’s literary commentary of Genesis would be a great place to go back to and see how he uses his both scientific and philosophical understanding to better understand what God is actually trying to communicate with the creation story. I mean, one of the things he had to contend with is that he knew that the earth was round, and that’s not the picture you get in the creation story in the Bible.

I think another thing is that the big bang theory, it was the discovery of a very devout Catholic scientist, a priest Father Lemaitre. And it was endorsed very early on by the Pope of his era. So I think we have a tradition within the Catholic church to really be open to truths that are attained in many different disciplines. And then I think we can really take comfort in that we know that the truth, all truth has the same source, so they can never contradict one another. So I think we should never be concerned about trying to get to a truth with different means. And as long as we do it in a humble way, and we stay true to church teachings, I think we can be quite confident that this is not going to lead us astray from God, but if anything, be a tool to guide us towards him.

Cy Kellett:

And we had some wonderful conversations with you last year about the big bang and about the origins of life and the likelihood … but then this is very close to the work that you do. What’s the likelihood that we’ll find life? And then people want to know of intelligent life. And people can refer back to those earlier conversations to that. But you said there is some possibility we’ll get lucky with the Webb Telescope and we’ll see the signs of life. I suppose that’s certain gases and certain things that you’d say, well, that’s very likely to be there’s living things there. Or we wouldn’t see that chemistry in that atmosphere.

How are you going to feel? Is that going to shake your faith? I mean, I don’t really think it’s going to shake your faith, but I do think those kinds of things can shake people’s faith. So how are you going to feel if they do find life out there?

Dr. Karin Öberg:

I would be really excited. I mean, I think the kind of life that we are sensitive to at this point, that would not be intelligent life. It would be any kind of life form, most likely bacterial. So something quite different from the kind of aliens that we typically imagine. And I know it would just be so exciting to see that we live within a universe that is a living universe. I think it would also tell us something about the origins of life on our own planet, which would be very cool. Whether you often get from chemistry to biology.

But I do also think that whenever understanding of the cosmos changes, it is disorienting. I mean, I understand why in the 16th and 17th century, as the cosmos was changing from one where the earth was at the center, to the sun of the center, that must have been real disorienting. And I think it would be a disorienting moment if you also realize that … where we come from a place where we only knew there was life here, to that there is life on another place. But no, it would not in any way shake my faith in God. I believe he can create many things also outside of the earth.

Cy Kellett:

But we’re not going to see bug people or anything like that? I mean, I am concerned about the bug people and you’re a scientist, so I thought I’d ask you if we’re going to see bug people.

Dr. Karin Öberg:

Well, I cannot guarantee we’re not going to see bug people, but we are not going to see bug people with the James Webb Telescope. So it’s not going to be its fault if it happens.

Cy Kellett:

You know that’s the clip we’re going to pull out of this. Of you saying, I can’t guarantee we’re going to see bug people. Dr. Karin Oberg, it’s always such a great pleasure to get to speak with you. I’m so grateful that you’re there. That God has given you the mind and the abilities he’s given you so that you can share these things with us.

More than anything, I think it’s wonderful to think about, again, as we started, this confluence of truth and beauty. And that this reveals what a generous God we have, that gave us such truths to explore and such beauty to experience.

Dr. Karin Öberg:

Absolutely.

Cy Kellett:

All right. I’m still worried about the bug people. Thanks, Dr. Oberg.

Dr. Karin Öberg:

Thank you so much.

Cy Kellett:

It’s always a great pleasure for me to get to talk with Dr. Karin Oberg. We’re always so grateful that she does it. She really is an extraordinary person. Well known around the world for her work, but well known in the Catholic community for her defense of the faith and for her teaching of the faith. And it’s just wonderful, a person like that, you just get no, even residue … I don’t, anyways. Talking with her of the alleged conflict between science and faith. She just doesn’t have it. And it’s so refreshing because it really is the Catholic mind. Know the truth. The Lord himself invited us, know the truth. And in every way we try to do that. And man, is it exciting?

And so we thought it would just be nice to talk with her, and I hope you enjoyed the conversation. If you did, [email protected] Don’t forget, if you’re watching on YouTube, to hit that little bell to get notified. Like, maybe leave some comments, help us grow the podcast there. We do appreciate that you’re helping us grow there. And if you’re listening on Apple, Spotify, Stitcher, or one of the other services, don’t forget to like and subscribe, and maybe even say a few nice words about the podcast. That will also help us grow. I’m Cy Kellett, your host. We’ll see you next time, God willing, right here on Catholic Answers Focus.

 

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