Nobel winner talks telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope, a large, infrared-optimized space telescope, will enhance scientists’ understanding of the early universe in a way that previous telescopes could not, Nobel Laureate Dr. John Mather said Tuesday.

Before nearly 90 students in the Sloane Physics Laboratory, Mather, the senior project scientist for the telescope at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, described its new capabilities, which he said will allow scientists to expand their studies of supernovae and dark matter. The telescope, initially proposed in 1995, will launch into orbit in 2014, he said, carrying enough fuel for 10 years of exploration.

A Nobel laureate in physics, Dr. John Mather, addresses students in the Sloane Physics Laboratory on Tuesday.
Brenna Neghaiwi
A Nobel laureate in physics, Dr. John Mather, addresses students in the Sloane Physics Laboratory on Tuesday.

The telescope, which will contain a primary mirror 6.5 meters in diameter, will operate at 40 degrees Kelvin (-388 degrees Fahrenheit) and will detect a wide range of wavelengths, from 0.6 to 29 microns, spanning from red light to the unobservable, Mather said. It aims to expand on work done by the Hubble Telescope, which is currently orbiting the Earth.

“The [Webb] telescope is enormous,” Mather said. “The Hubble is just not good enough. We need a bigger and better telescope.”

The telescope’s first mission will be to determine the ionization history of the early universe, information which will allow scientists to more precisely pinpoint the first luminous sources. Scientists will also use the telescope to study supernovae, the explosions of stars, as a proxy for understanding the first stars in the universe.

The telescope may also be able to help scientists better understand dark matter — hypothetical mass that cannot be detected by its radiation — as well as exoplanets, planets that orbit a star other than the sun.

Mather praised James Webb, the scientist for whom the telescope is named, for his persistence in pushing politicians in Washington to support Project Apollo, which landed the first man on the moon on July 20, 1969.

“He was an absolutely amazing human being,” Mather said. “I cannot think of anyone else who could have done what he did.”

Mather, whose research centers on cosmology and infrared astronomy, received the Nobel Prize in physics in 2006 for his work regarding the Big Bang.

Three students interviewed said the depth and specificity of Mather’s lecture enhanced their understanding of the parts and purpose of the Webb telescope. Still, Sunny Chung ’13 said he felt that, because of his unfamiliarity with the technicalities of the telescope, some of the talk “went way over [his] head.”

Meg Urry, chair of Yale’s physics department, lauded Mather for his “selfless” work in constructing the telescope, a creation she said she believes will benefit the entire scientific community.

“It is the most fantastic telescope ever built,” Urry said. “It may just be able to connect that last link between what we know now and the earlier years of the universe.”

Mather will give the third installment of this year’s Leigh Page Prize lecture series on basic physics questions addressed by astrophysics. The lecture will occur in the Sloane Physics Laboratory on Wednesday at 4:30 p.m.