It was Christmas morning in 2021 when, on behalf of 8 billion current humans, 10,000 future observers, 20,000 engineers and technicians, 100 scientists worldwide, and three space agencies, the greatest telescope ever made took off from Europe’s Spaceport on an Ariane 5 rocket in the French Guiana, South America.

The idea for a new telescope to replace the Hubble Telescope began in 1989 at a Next Generation Space Telescope Workshop at the Space Telescope Science Institute. Nearly 35 years later, the dream became reality when early results from the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) started to be revealed and talked about with incredible images based on the telescope’s ability to observe infrared light.  

On Thursday night, the UNM Department of Physics & Astronomy hosted Nobel Prize winner John Mather who presented a talk, Opening the Infrared Treasure Chest with JWST,  to a captive audience that spilled over into adjacent rooms at The University of New Mexico’s Physics & Astronomy and Interdisciplinary Building (PAÍS).

Mather, a senior astrophysicist in the Observational Cosmology Laboratory located at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., led the JWST science team as Senior Project Scientist (1995-2023) for the Webb telescope and represented the scientific interests within the project management. He won the 2006 Nobel Prize for Physics, chosen by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, and shares the prize with George F. Smoot of the University of California for their work using the COBE satellite to measure the heat radiation from the Big Bang.

During his nearly hour-long talk, Mather, who was in town for several speaking engagements, answered various questions and discussed the astronomy-related milestones achieved throughout the decades. 

“I'm aiming to communicate with the non-astronomers, people who like what we're talking about but don't know all the stories,” Mather said. “I try to tell the stories of how did we learn about the history of the universe? What does it mean? How far can we go? Are we alone? Everybody wants to know these answers and a little about how I got to be a scientist, too?”

So, are we alone?

“Well, I don't think so. I think not because the universe is very large, and there's a hundred billion stars in our galaxy,” answered Mather. “We know that most stars have planets. Most, about 20% of them, are about the right size. It could be like race. So, there has got to be something out there. Unless life requires a completely unlikely miracle. Otherwise, I would call it a thermodynamic imperative that it will always occur given a chance. That's my guess, but I don't know.”

How did we get here?

“I don't know. But there are some parts I can tell you about from biology,” Mather said. “When I was six years old, my dad told me that we are made out of cells with chromosomes and genes and all that. Why did he tell me that? Because he was a geneticist studying dairy cows. So that got my attention. And you know, your fate is determined by something you can't see, and it's not just where you're born and who your parents are, but a lot of things you can't see. So, that's a mystery.”

How far can we go?

“Well, not as far as you wish. If you saw on television that we exploded on another planet and got out of our spaceship, I'm sorry – but we can go to Mars,” Mather deadpanned. “We can't get you back yet because we cannot yet get fuel on the surface of Mars, to lift off again. This is our hard engineering project. And some people will go, anyway. You're laughing. Some people – we want them to go.”

As for JWST itself, Mather discussed how scientists know the story of the expanding universe (AKA Big Bang), how JWST was built, and what scientists have been able to find out following its deployment, which essentially began about 30 minutes after the launch in Dec. 2021 when JWST’s solar unique solar array unfolded and mission scientists acknowledged that the array was providing power to the observatory.

“We’re seeing farther out than ever before, and farther back in time than ever before, and the first galaxies aren’t quite what we expected,” Mather said. “We’re learning about the first supermassive black holes and how they grow. We’re seeing inside dust clouds to discover how stars are born, observing planets around other stars, and measuring their chemistry. So far, there’s no Earth 2.0, but astronomers are hoping to find one with the next generation of telescopes. The pictures are magnificent!”