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Nobel Prize-winning astrophysicist to speak at UNM about James Webb Space Telescope results

Webb's First Deep Field. The image from the James Webb Space Telescope features stars and galaxies at various distances.
Webb's First Deep Field. The image from the James Webb Space Telescope features stars and galaxies at various distances.

Nobel Prize winner John Mather is holding a public talk at the University of New Mexico Thursday evening, Jan. 25, entitled “Opening the infrared treasure chest with J-W-S-T,” referring to the James Webb Space Telescope. The senior astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center spoke with KUNM ahead of the talk about the telescope and its early results.

JOHN MATHER: The James Webb Space Telescope is a gigantic camera in space picking up infrared light to help us look at things that are too cold to emit their own visible light, to pick up the light from the most distant galaxies as far back in time as we can see, and to see things hidden in dust clouds where stars are being born today.

KUNM: Just over two years since it was launched, what are some of the more exciting findings so far?

MATHER: Well, our biggest surprises I think are in the area of the first galaxies that grew after the Big Bang. They are hotter, bigger, brighter, more numerous than we expected, and they're not round. They already have shapes that are like bananas or cigars or something. So, we're still trying to figure out what does this mean? But it's nice to have a surprise.

KUNM: I was going to ask what does that mean, but it sounds like we don't know yet.

MATHER: Don't know yet. We have some calculations that say it should have been like that. But other people say, "Well, we're still surprised."

KUNM: Neat. Well, you won the Nobel Prize in Physics for your observational work of the Big Bang back in 2006. How does the James Webb telescope expand our ability to understand the history of the universe?

MATHER: Our measurements that we got the prize for were measurements of the heat of the Big Bang itself. So, we've confirmed the expanding universe story and found out what it was like when it was very young. So, it said, if you could figure out how we go from the random hot and cold spots of the early times to galaxies and black holes everywhere, that would be a huge jump forward in understanding and help us understand the history of ourselves. So, how can we get from there was a big bang to we're here? There's a lot of steps along the way to find out. And astronomers can work on the part about the stars and the galaxies. And then we say, "OK, geologists and biologists, you all figured out the rest part."

KUNM: How much does it all cost?

MATHER: This one cost about 10 billion U.S. dollars for our part, plus significant parts from Europe and Canada. And that was more than we thought it would be. On the other hand, there's no other way that we know of to get this kind of information. So, if this is what you want to know about, this is what you have to do.

KUNM: With so many needs here on Earth, why is this kind of space exploration a valuable use of resources?

MATHER: Aside from the satisfaction of knowing our own history and our place in the world, there are practical effects. The person who figured out how to measure the shape of the Webb telescope mirrors then went on to invent something that you see in every eye doctor's office. So, we have connections.

KUNM: Any sense of what new kind of technology could come out of some of the results of James Webb?

MATHER: It's hard to guess. We're not likely to develop time travel or to be able to get to Mars quicker. But we're a part of a worldwide effort to make all of those technologies better. And so we, as a government agency, often have to buy something that doesn't exist. So, we are the people who provoke an invention. We are just one of many agencies with that kind of job. So, if you want to know how to do a really, really difficult project, we know how to do it. We know how to manage and coordinate 20,000 people to make something that worked perfectly in outer space. And we can do that for other large projects, too. So, if you've got something in mind that you really need done, just figure we could do it. The people of the world could do it.

KUNM: How do folks who are intrigued by this learn more about not only the telescope, but its images and what it all means?

MATHER: Well, we put out our data all the time. The scientific news media are flooding my inbox every day with more discoveries that we make. So, it's in the news if you look for it. We have websites that publicize all of the web data, and many, many of them. So, Google "JWST images" and you'll find them.

You can hear more from Mather Thursday, Jan. 25, at UNM, where he’ll be speaking at 7:00 p.m. The public event is being held in the Physics and Astronomy building (PAIS).  

Nash Jones (they/them) is a general assignment reporter in the KUNM newsroom and the local host of NPR's All Things Considered (weekdays on KUNM, 5-7 p.m. MT). You can reach them at nashjones@kunm.org or on Twitter @nashjonesradio.
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