The human quest to find our place in the universe

Einstein’s theory that space is curved by gravity requires a nonstatic universe, expanding or contracting. With a light-gathering mirror six times larger than Hubble’s, and operating in temperatures of minus-389 degrees Fahrenheit, Webb will gather extraordinarily faint light that has been traveling for billions of years since the Big Bang. With Webb looking back in time to a few hundred million years after the explosion, scientists will analyze light for clues concerning the earliest formation of stars, planets, galaxies and us.

Hubble, which is the size of a school bus, supplies data for more than one-fifth of all scholarly astronomy papers. Webb, which will be the size of a tennis court, will advance knowledge about this stupendous improbability: How did material complexity, then single-cell life, then animals and consciousness emerge from chaos?

Webb will not shed light on two interesting questions: How many universes are there? Is everything the result of a meaningless cosmic sneeze, or of an intentional First Cause? Webb will, however, express our species’ dignity as curious creatures.