Mather shares discoveries of the universe as NASA’s lead scientist and a Nobel Prize recipient

Nobel Laureate John Mather lectured to an audience of approximately 600 people on the universe last Thursday. Photo Credit: NASA/GSFC/Pat Izzo

Learning astronomy was appealing as a child, according to Nobel Laureate John Mather, because he could take a piece of cardboard and lens and build a telescope.

Today, Mather is the lead scientist for NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which will serve as the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope.

Mather said the project, an international effort, “is very ambitious.”

“We’ve taken on a huge challenge,” Mather said in a technical talk on the JWST Wednesday evening.

The JWST’s primary mirror is a 6.5-meter (21-foot) diameter gold-coated beryllium reflector, with a collecting area–for light from the objects being observed– about five times larger than the Hubble Space Telescope’s.

The JWST is currently scheduled to be launched from Guiana Space Centre in French Guiana in 2018 by the European Space Agency’s Ariane 5 rocket, a heavy launch vehicle.

The JWST will be put in an orbit around the sun at the Earth’s L2 Lagrangian point–a point of gravitational balance–approximately 1 million miles away from the night side of the Earth. Mather said astronauts cannot get there from Earth yet.

The telescope when completed will have 100 mechanisms to protect it during launch.

Mather said he is concerned with “getting it right.”

According to Mather, the JWST would not be able to be repaired if it were to break while in orbit.

Other challenges Mather and his team face are contamination issues and the sun shining on the telescope.

The JWST must be well-shielded from radiation coming from the sun, Earth and moon; therefore, the JWST incorporates a large five-layer, fan-fold sunshield, which will unfurl to block infrared radiation and allow the telescope to cool down to roughly 45 K (-400 F).

Physics Professor Tom Foster said he loved the technical talk.

“It’s interesting to learn about the obstacles and that we can overcome them,” Foster said.

Physics Department Chair Abdullatif Hamad said the vast knowledge involved with creating the JWST was remarkable.

“They need to know a lot of things material-wise and technology-wise to build the components of the telescope,” Hamad said.

Physics Professor Jeffrey Sabby, who made arrangements for the astrophysicist’s visit, said meeting Mather has been great.

“It can be a little intimidating, but he’s really a nice guy– very genuine and down-to-earth,” Sabby said.

On Thursday evening, Mather presented his perspectives on the universe as part of the William C. Shaw Lecture series. Approximately 600 were in attendance.

Mather said the Big Bang theory is actually a wrong description of how the universe “began” on Segue radio show hosted by Aldemaro Romero, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.

Mather shared his knowledge about the universe in an interview with Dean Romero on Segue radio show Photo courtesy of Michael Nathe

“There wasn’t a beginning and end,” Mather told Romero.

He said he would describe the universe more as an “infinitely expanding one” that is “getting cooler.”

Mather also said there is no way to know how much the human race knows about the universe.

“It is much more complicated. The universe is so large there is no logical possibility of measuring everything.” Mather said. “There are huge domains of sciences to be understood.”

Nevertheless, through his work as project scientist for NASA’s Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite, he and fellow Nobel Laureate George Smoot’s discoveries revolutionized the understanding of the early cosmos.

The COBE precisely measured and mapped the oldest light in the universe — the cosmic microwave background – and, among other findings, confirmed the Inflationary Big Bang theory as the origin of the universe. Inflationary Big Bang theory explains the origins of the universe as an expansive occurrence, and, according to Mather, “not as a firecracker exploding.” For such research Smoot and Mather were co-recipients of the Noble Prize in Physics in 2006.

On receiving the Nobel Prize, Mather gives credit to his team of 1,500 scientists and engineers who shared in the effort and says he’s no different from others.

I’m a normal person, a normal scientist—I just did important work,” Mather said.

The following link is an interactive 3-D video provided by NASA of the James Webb Space Telescope

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