John Mather, Nobel Prize in Physics at Future Congress

In 1995 he received the daunting task of building and putting into orbit the space observatory that would revolutionize astronomy in the 21st century.. The launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) it was finalized in 2021 and the following year the most detailed images so far of the known universe were revealed. To John C. Mather, lead scientist for this project, The desire to know what is beyond what we can see and what we cannot see is essential as fuel for the engine of knowledge. “Astronomy moves at the speed of imagination,” says the astronomer.

As if that were not enough, in 2006 he won the Nobel Prize in Physics, for showing that various types of particles and radiation travel through outer space, including cosmic radiation. In Interview with What’s upJohn Mather tells about his main achievements, his presentation at the latest version of Future Congressas well as what tasks remain pending for the astronomy of tomorrow.

-Have you been here in Chile before? How much of this country contributes to universal study?

Yes, I have been visiting for a long time. We took our team from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to the mountain where they have the VLT (Very Large Telescope). We wanted to appreciate what it was like to build something that big.

Chile is an important center for astronomy on the ground. Because of the beauty of its observation sites in the Atacama area and in other areas of northern Chile. So it is well recognized as the place for young and old astronomers, where you can see the sky in greater detail.

Photo: NASA

-How much of the universe do we really know and how much remains to be known?

We know a very small amount. So as you know, we can only see with telescopes and the rest we have to use our imagination. Well, we can, and we can only personally visit planets near Earth, which means that right now the Earth, the Moon, and Mars are accessible and probably nothing else.

-How has this path been from the idea of ​​building a telescope like the JWST to the first packet of information that it gave us from the edge of the observable universe?

I started working on it in 1995. Other people had already written a report saying “please build us this great telescope” and they told us it would be exciting. All the things that we are now observing with the telescope were imagined at the time. So I worked with engineers and other scientists to decide exactly what to do and how to build it. And then after it went live to make sure it worked really well and we’re so excited that everything we envisioned is coming to life.

SMACS 0723, image captured by the JWST. Credits: NASA

-How important is the JWST for science, for researchers or even for humanity?

Well, for science it is pioneering a new tool. We observe things we could never see before, and we have been surprised scientifically, because the universe is not exactly as we imagined it to be, and we have been visually surprised, because the universe is so much more beautiful.

– Was the information recently released by the JWST the most important achievement of NASA in this century so far?

I think the most important thing is that we showed that we could build an incredibly difficult observatory and make it work beautifully. That means the path to the future of even more powerful observatories is open. We can design, we can imagine and build the most incredibly complex and difficult things, and they will work if we are able to do all the testing programs that we should in the field.

Photo: NASA

-And after these incredible images from the James Webb Space Telescope, what is the next thing that this observatory will explore?

Well, the observatory itself has a full program. It is observing different things every day. There are two or three dozen different objects every day, organized by a process of international proposals. If you are an astronomer anywhere in the world, you can send us your idea. After this, there are several observatories coming up, like the Euclid Observatory that will be launched by Europe to examine dark matter and dark energy, to see what we can’t see. We also have an online observatory called the Vera C. Rubin Telescope. That’s on the ground, but it will survey the entire sky every three nights and say so. And that’s in Chile.

James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Photo: NASA/AP

-What will be NASA’s next project to expand what we know of the universe?

NASA’s next big project is called the Nancy Grace Roman Telescope, and it’s going up around 2027 to look at dark matter and dark energy again, or at least collect evidence for them, since they can’t be seen. And also to study a large fraction of the sky. He will look for things that are strange, different and interesting.

Photo: NASA

-About your presentation at Congreso del Futuro, what message would you like to leave to those who witnessed your talk?

Let people see that our achievements are events and that our opportunities are open. That if we can do this, then we can discover many more things and we can build many more types of equipment to go even further with our imagination. Astronomers travel at the speed of imagination. It is up to the youth of today to carry out this project in the future.