A NASA astronaut works outside the International Space Station in this image released Oct. 8, 2014. The universe’s beauty is only going to be more obvious with the James Webb Space Telescope. CNS photo/Alexander Gerst, NASA, ESA, Handout via Reuters

What we learn of the universe leads us to God

By 
  • January 20, 2022

The universe is beautiful and we’ve got pictures to prove it. Come May, when the James Webb Space Telescope starts downloading deep space photos, we’re going to have even more pictures, and astrophysicist and cosmologist Fr. Adam Hincks just knows those pictures will be beautiful too.

“We’re going to get beautiful pictures from the JWST (James Webb Space Telescope) and that’s super-important,” Hincks told The Catholic Register. “The public loves it, just because they’re beautiful pictures and they make you think about the universe. If you’re a person of faith, it helps you think about God too. This is His handiwork.”

This onslaught of abstract, pure beauty we see in images of galaxies, nebulas and stars is not just incidental to the science of astronomy, said the Jesuit who holds the Sutton Family Chair in Science, Christianity and Cultures at the David A. Dunlap Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics in the University of Toronto, teaches in the Christianity and Culture program at the University of St. Michael’s College and in his spare time is an adjunct scholar with the Vatican Observatory.

“It’s not secondary. It’s not irrelevant, these beautiful pictures,” Hincks said. “As scientists, we love them too. We certainly study them carefully. We analyze them mathematically. We try to figure out the physics. But at the same time we also love just the images. There’s further beauty when you understand the science.”

For Hincks, an encounter with beauty on this scale is also an encounter with God.

“When you’re in a relationship with someone, when you love someone, you’re interested in what that person does. This is what God has done,” he said.

As a cosmologist, Hincks studies how the universe came to be what it is. It’s a sort of scientific take on history, starting with the Big Bang. Hincks’ specialty is the very early history of the first instance of the universe, when it was fairly uniform and mostly gas.

The James Webb telescope, with its giant, golden eye that can read infrared light, is going to have the ability to peer back in time to when stars first began to form. The light that hits the James Webb will have travelled for billions of years — so long that the wavelengths have stretched out and are no longer visible to ordinary telescopes on Earth, or even the Hubble Telescope that orbits high above the interference of our atmosphere.

The James Webb is about 100 times more powerful than the Hubble. The light it sees dates from about 100 million years after the Big Bang — a blink of an eye in the 13.8-billion-year history of the universe. The telescope cost $9 billion (U.S.) and will take almost four months to set up and focus from NASA’s Goddard space flight centre in Greenbelt, Maryland.

For now, Hincks isn’t part of any of the teams of scientists who have scheduled time on the telescope to run experiments. One of his Jesuit colleagues at the Vatican Observatory is awaiting data from the JWST that will show star populations as the first galaxies formed.

Science is a team sport and even if Hincks isn’t booking time on the James Webb, what the eye in the sky sees matters to the cosmologist.

“I will certainly have colleagues who are involved in projects on the James Webb telescope. It will certainly impact my research, even if I don’t directly work on it,” he said.

It’s all about filling in the blanks on the long chronicle of the universe, said Hincks.

“There’s kind of some fuzzy chapters,” he said. “We don’t have the words on the page yet.”

Encountering God in cosmology is no surprise.

“It’s part of the Christian world view to see the universe as making sense, as something you can study,” said Hincks. “Christians want to know where it all came from. Those are questions that very naturally lead to scientific curiosity.”

Certainly, not every scientist is Christian. But as a Christian, Hincks knows that what he learns leads him back to God.

“Our faith tells us something about the origin of the universe — that it comes from God,” he said. “What our faith doesn’t tell us is, scientifically, how that works. For the science we need to go out with our telescopes and figure out the equations and all of that.”

Last modified on January 25, 2022

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