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Richard Groves: In what Is: Profundity and humility

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Galaxy cluster SMACS 0723, captured by the James Webb Space Telescope on July 11.

“The one who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead.”

— Albert Einstein

It looked like a Jackson Pollock painting splattered on a vast canvas, except that the accompanying commentary from NASA said, “Light from these galaxies took billions of years to reach us. We are looking back in time to within a billion years after the Big Bang.”

When the ancients wrote, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” what the James Webb Space Telescope saw is what they were trying to explain. Except they did not have — they could not have — the slightest conception of the vastness and the complexity of “the heavens and the earth.”

Nor do we.

One of my earliest memories is looking out my bedroom window at the star-spangled heavens. We lived outside town, so the glow of city lights did not spill into our sky, diluting its richness and depth. Twinkles of light stood out brilliantly against the deep purple darkness.

I knew nothing about nebula or black holes. My knowledge of things astronomical was closer to that of the ancient poet who looked at the “heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established,” and was amazed that the Maker of such a magnificent creation would be aware of the existence of mere mortals.

“What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”

The poet answered his own question. It was not an answer one would expect:

“You have made them a little lower than God and crowned them with glory and honour.”

We have far more reason to bask in our achievements than the psalmist had 3,000 years ago.

“We’re going to see the very first stars and galaxies that were ever formed,” exuded Jean Creighton, director of the Manfred Olson Planetarium at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee.

Silas Laycock, professor of astronomy at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell, announced proudly, “Humanity’s greatest space telescope is open for business.”

Astronomer Skylar Grayson called the James Webb Space Telescope “one of the most impressive things that humanity has ever built.”

Yet staring into the vastness of All That Is, whether looking out one’s bedroom window into the darkened summer sky or at a picture of uncountable astronomical bodies on a flatscreen TV can have a very different effect.

A less celebrated psalmist gazed, mesmerized, at “the moon and the stars” and asked, “What are human beings that you regard them, or mortals that you think of them?” (Psalm 144:3-4) and was compelled by the overwhelmingness of the experience to conclude: “They (mortals) are like a breath; their days are like a passing shadow.”

“Look up there,” said Billy Bigelow in “Carousel.” “Why the sky’s so big the sea looks small. And two little people, you and I, we don’t count at all.”

We have been given a hint of a glimpse of a sliver of a reality the dimensions of which are so vast that a new way of numbering — the light year — had to be invented to measure it.

That glimpse can ennoble and inspire us, or it can trouble and debilitate us, but in any case, it should humble us.

For it suggests questions for which we presently have no answer (and may never have): Are we alone? Is the reason we think there has to be a beginning — whether creatio ex nihilo or the Big Bang — because that’s just the way our brain works? Why is there anything?

My twin takeaways: One, whatever our idea of God or Ultimate Reality or Whatever, if we have any idea at all, it isn’t up to the task.

Two, the most profound human utterance in the presence of That Which is Ultimately Real, and the only appropriate response, is, Wow.

When she saw the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope, Oxford University astrophysicist Becky Smethurst applauded, displaying the exuberant glee of a child.

Newsweek reported that Sarafina Nance, an astrophysicist, “sat open-mouthed and wide-eyed, then placed her hand over her mouth in disbelief. Unable to compute what she was seeing fully, she leaned forward for a closer look.”

Skylar Grayson was reduced to repetition: “The planetary nebulae is so beautiful. Oh my God, the galaxies. Oh, my God, that’s so beautiful. Oh my God.” Then she burst into tears.

Wow.

More profound still — reverent silence.

Richard Groves (rgroves@wsjournal.com) is a writer who lives in Winston-Salem.

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