For astrophysicist John Mather, Nobel Prize in Physics 2006 and scientist in charge of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), the internet has accelerated the pace of learning and Latin Americans have much to contribute to science.
He’s optimistic that many astrophysical phenomena, including new discoveries, will be studied thanks to the JWST, to be launched in October 2018 from the Guiana Space Center in South America.
-What does a typical day for a NASA scientist look like? Particularly at the Goddard Space Flight Center.
My daily life looks very ordinary: I talk with people and I write emails and I think. The thing that is different here at NASA is that the conversations are about building new observatories and how we will use them.
-Is there a lot of internal competition to get funds, projects or equipment?
Yes, almost all scientific projects are done on the basis of competition for resources. That’s a good thing.
-Early this year there were reports of alleged censorship and funding cuts for some scientific research areas in the United States. Do you think the Trump administration needs better science policy?
President Trump has said some very good things about the need for science and the need for NASA in particular. But as you know, some people don’t like the scientific results and try to avoid the consequences.
My view is that the truth doesn’t care whether you believe it or not, and Mother Nature doesn’t care whether you believe either.
-Do you have any thoughts or comments on the March for Science?
Now that it has happened I am really pleased to see how many people around the world decided to participate.
-The JWST had funds cut off and was almost eliminated a few years ago. What does this project mean to you?
The JWST is the most powerful space telescope ever built and it will open up new frontiers of discovery. From my point of view, it is a wonderful thing that we were able to make a new plan and carry it out, and that Congress agreed and has supported it.
We have not needed to change the plan in over 6 years now, which is a real tribute to the skill and determination of our engineering teams.
-For the first time we will be able to see objects that are very far away. What could we find?
I am really hoping we will discover something surprising, something that nobody has even imagined yet.
-How will this telescope help modern astrophysics? Why is it so important?
The JWST will enable us to see farther back in time, to the formation of the first stars and galaxies and black holes and supernovae.
It will help us see inside dusty clouds where stars and planets are being born today. It will be used to work on all the great mysteries of astronomy.
-You once said that there are no limits to imagination. We live in a solar system, in the arm of the Milky Way galaxy, in the Local Group, in the Virgo Supercluster or Local Supercluster. We speak of 33 megaparsecs. What other measures will we use in the future when we discover more objects?
I think our neighborhood will turn out to be much more populated with nearby objects than we ever dreamed. And looking far away, and far back in time, we will use gigaparsecs and billions of years to measure.
-Do you come from a family of scientists?
Yes, my father was a scientist, studying breeding and feeding of dairy cows, to get more and better milk. My mother’s father was a bacteriologist, who helped develop the production methods for the first antibiotic, penicillin.
-Has your wife been always supportive of your work?
Yes, absolutely, she is wonderful.
-Do you enjoy literature, music, art in general? What do you do in your free time?
We like to travel to places where we think about human history and nature. Close to home we like to go to the ballet, because my wife is a ballet teacher.
– What advice can you give young Latin Americans who want to become scientists and contribute to science?
I think people around the world have much to contribute. Much science and engineering is local because every major problem of society has a very large technical component. And now that the internet has given everyone access to everything ever invented, we can all learn as fast as we can go.
The JWST is the most powerful space telescope ever built and it will open up new frontiers of discovery. From my point of view it is a wonderful thing that we were able to make a new plan and carry it out, and that Congress agreed and has supported it