Discovering the Universe with the James Webb Space Telescope
October 3, 2017 at 2:00 P.M. in the Pearl Young Theater
Where did we come from, and where are we going? I will outline a history of the universe from its early moments in the Big Bang, to the possible end. Our history is full of beneficial catastrophes, and we wouldn’t be here without them: stars explode, the Moon is formed in a giant collision with the Earth, the Earth is bombarded by asteroids and comets for hundreds of millions of years, and multiple extinction events through hot, cold, poison, and asteroid impacts cause rapid evolution of life. But here we are, our ancestors survived and thrived through it all. Now, we can tell the story, we can look for more details, and we can begin to adventure through the solar system and eventually beyond, in partnership with a new entity, artificial intelligence coupled with robotics. Scientific discovery has been propelled by competition (including war) for thousands of years, so it’s immensely important to public policy. I will illustrate with examples from NASA, including our measurements of the Big Bang, discoveries with the Hubble, and future telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope (planned for 2018 launch) and beyond. Within a few decades, we may know that life is common in the universe, or perhaps not.
Dr. John C. Mather is a Senior Astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, where he specializes in infrared astronomy and cosmology. He received his BS in physics at Swarthmore College and his PhD in physics at the University of California at Berkeley.
As an NRC postdoctoral fellow at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (New York City), he led the proposal efforts for the Cosmic Background Explorer (1974-76), and came to GSFC to be the Study Scientist (1976-88), Project Scientist (1988-98), and the Principal Investigator for the Far IR Absolute Spectrophotometer (FIRAS) on COBE. He and his team showed that the cosmic microwave background radiation has a blackbody spectrum within 50 parts per million, confirming the Big Bang theory to extraordinary accuracy. The COBE team also discovered the cosmic anisotropy (hot and cold spots in the background radiation), now believed to be the primordial seeds that led to the structure of the universe today. It was these findings that led to Dr. Mather receiving the Nobel Prize in 2006.
Dr. Mather now serves as Senior Project Scientist (1995-present) for the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the great Hubble Space Telescope.