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Dhaka Tribune

Seeing God’s work

This article is being republished from Dhaka Tribune archive as the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) released a new wave of cosmic images on Tuesday

Update : 13 Jul 2022, 07:18 PM

The past 150 years have witnessed an explosion of true knowledge built on science, measurement, and competition to discover truth. Truth is not what is handed down by a leader or a priest or a general, however much such persons may believe that they have truth in their hands. 

Truth arises from observation, measurement, thinking, and arguing where the decision and meanings emerge from a competitive process, and the judge is the laws of statistics. The explosion of knowledge has come from the discoveries in physics and mathematics, combined with the willingness of some wealthy persons and sometimes the government, to pay for the equipment and materials that are needed.

After these 150 years, we have a reasonably complete explanation of how the universe works, from things as small as the nucleus of an atom to the size of a galaxy. For really complex things in this range like the human cell or brain, knowledge is partial but growing all the time. The fundamental structure of biology is laid down. There are at least a couple centuries of work, but we will reach a comprehensive view of biology, even of the human brain. 

But the edges of knowledge of the very small and the very large remain full of puzzles. If we are lucky, then today, on Christmas, December 25, the first step will take place to lead to a giant increase in our knowledge of a very large part of the universe -- the James Webb telescope will be launched from French Guiana. It is a formidable understanding to place in space an extraordinarily complex instrument that will record data and send it to us of the way the universe looked much closer to the “Big Bang” when the things as we know them really started. 

There are many mysteries to work out. We believe that the mass and energy of the universe are about 5% matter of the kind that we are made of and 25% dark matter that we cannot see and about which we know only due to the impact of dark matter on the way galaxies move. We have strong evidence that the universe began with an explosion, the Big Bang, so that space expanded and all pieces of matter got further away from everything else. 

Imagine a dough full of raisins. As you heat the dough [space] it expands and every raisin is further away from all the other raisins. If you think about this, you realize that as time goes by, the gravitational pull on an object gets greater. You expect the expansion to slow down. But it does not.  

Instead, it accelerates, so the rate of expansion of the universe is increasing, not decreasing. We explain that by introducing dark energy that is responsible for this acceleration of the expansion. The amount of dark energy comprises 70% of the energy and mass in the universe. But the amount of dark energy required is inconsistent with other data; perhaps we do not know how rapidly the universe is expanding and accelerating as it does so. The Webb telescope will help to resolve this problem to some extent.

There are many problems and uncertainties in our understanding of the universe at this scale and the new James Webb telescope will help to deepen the understanding of how the universe was formed. It is this kind of data that is urgently needed.

The Hubble telescope looked back to time 500 million years after the Big Bang, which took place 13.6 billion years ago. The Webb telescope will look back to only 50 million years after the Big Bang. We will learn from actual observations what was going on in this early period of the universe.

In addition, the telescope will give information on the possibility of biochemical life on the planets that we have discovered by the millions in our own galaxy. This is another exciting possibility. 

This is a bold and risky undertaking. The telescope cost about $10 billion. It is 20 times over its original budget. It is 14 years behind schedule. Things were harder to do than originally planned. Bangladesh’s mega-projects cost and time overruns look like nothing in comparison.

The telescope will fly to a point a million miles from Earth. It is a special point where it can remain more or less fixed in space. The telescope is folded up as it is considerably larger than the size of the spaceship. Then a large sunscreen carried folded up in the spaceship will be released and assembled to protect the telescope from heat. The telescope has to be kept at about minus 250 degrees C. 

If all of this is accomplished as planned, it will be a remarkable technical achievement in itself. 

This is a project that is planned and will be used by the international community. It will further human knowledge, looking closer than ever to the start of the universe and also for evidence of other life on planets in our galaxy. It will help us to understand the structure of the universe and come ever closer to grasping the physics and mathematics of God’s plan. But the boldness of vision, the determination to reach deeper into space, is an American project. It is America that provided the money and the determined management to achieve this end. 

If successful, it will build American confidence in our society. If it fails, it will add to our discouragement. But humanity’s thirst and search for knowledge of our universe is strong and the next 50 years will be a time of wonderment as the fog of our ignorance evaporates.

We are more than inhabitants of Earth; we are explorers of the universe in our minds, and soon with our bodies. 

Forrest Cookson is an economist who has served as the first president of AmCham and has been a consultant for the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics.

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