Earlier this month, we had the privilege to see magnificent pictures of our universe that were taken by the new James Webb Space telescope. For the first time we were treated to pictures of a region of the Carina Nebula where young stars are forming. We also saw Stephan’s Quintet, a cluster of five galaxies that you are probably familiar with if you have watched the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life.” This updated picture, constructed from ~1,000 separate images, provides new information about interactions between galaxies that may have been important for the creation of the early universe. Pictures of the Southern Ring Nebula, a planetary nebula approximately 25,000 light-years from Earth, provide a first look at the clouds of gas and dust that radiate from dying stars. Images like this one will provide new understanding of the chemical molecules that are present in nebulae.
I don’t know about you, but for me these images of deep space spark a profound sense of awe and wonder that point me to God. They elicit “the feeling of being in the presence of something vast that transcends my understanding of the world”, and they lead me to acknowledge my own limitations.
Thomas Carlyle, a Scottish philosopher and essayist, is credited with saying that wonder [and awe] are the basis of worship, and that has certainly been my experience during my career as a research scientist. Not only do I experience wonder and awe by looking at, and contemplating, pictures of stars and galaxies from the Hubble and Webb space telescopes, but I also experience awe and wonder when I consider much smaller things like ants, pollen grains, amoebas, diatoms, and mitochondria. In fact, in my experience, there is just as much awe to be found through a microscope as a telescope.
(Emperor Butterfly Wing photo by Charles B. Krebs. Shared in accordance with the Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) license. This image was awarded Honorable Mention in Nikon’s 2018 Photomicrography competition.)