Friday, November 13, 2015

Nobel Laureate Dr. John Mather Visits

Our Department had the distinct pleasure of welcoming the esteemed Dr. John Mather to our University this past Thursday.  Our own Shanil Virani introduced Dr. Mather to us all in an HHS lecture hall packed with people of a variety of majors in attendance.  I've been at rock concerts less dense, but those bands do not compare to this rockstar of astrophysics.

After Mr. Virani recited the the Nobel Laureate's long list of projects and achievements, Dr. Mather began his presentation by talking about the history of observational astronomy, which has always carried two main themes; a theory, no matter how peculiar, can only be disproved by observation, and astronomers always need a better telescope.

Dr. Mather then went on to describe how he grew up with the advances in astro-based radiation detection in the 20th century.  These advances culminated in Dr. Mather's 1989 project to send the NASA Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) into space to observe the background radiation (an experiment which initially failed on Earth).  The results of the COBE observations produced both a background map of the night sky (which is still under investigation today) and a graph that fit the theoretical blackbody radiation from the Big Bang with an error of only a few parts per million.  This experiment, which won Dr. Mather and his colleague Dr. Smoot the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2006, gave a true backbone to the theory of the Big Bang, and has been heralded as "The most important scientific discovery of the century, if not of all time" by physicists like Dr. Steven Hawking.

Dr. Mather then discussed his new project, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is set to launch into orbit in three years.  Dr. Mather emphasized that the JWST is not designed to replace Hubble, but rather study the infrared sources in our sky, which Hubble is unable to do.  We are very excited to see what sort of data JWST can provide for us, and will be sure to watch it launch into the night sky.  In the meantime, you can watch the JWST being built as it prepares for its voyage.  Thanks again to Dr. Mather for coming to our University!