Grasping the Universe
Telescopes to See Almost Forever

John C. Mather

Senior Astrophysicst, NASA
Senior Project Scientist, James Webb Space Telescope
Co-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics 2006

2341st Meeting Abstract
Friday, January 23, 2015, 8:00 PM


Where did we come from, who are we, and where are we going? Astronomers worldwide are building and planning new telescopes to see farther and better than ever before. Already under construction are the Square Kilometer Array in South Africa and Australia, the ALMA in the Chilean high desert, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, the Thirty Meter Telescope, the Giant Segmented Magellan Telescope, the European Extremely Large Telescope, and the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).

But even these instruments will not be able to observe many features of the cosmos, so astronomers and cosmologists already are thinking about the next generations of space telescope, such as the Advanced Technology Large Aperture Space Telescope, the even more powerful Life Finder Telescope, and future X-ray and gravitational wave observatories. All of these marvels are propelled by technological advances as well as by the thrill of possible discovery, and none of them are the end of the line either.

I will illustrate what these great telescopes do, talk about the new inventions at their hearts, and outline what it takes to conceive a new observatory like the JWST and take it to completion. I will talk about the open questions of astronomy, why they are still open, and what we are doing to answer them. I will speculate a little on how far astronomy can take us, about progress with robots and artificial intelligence, and about our ultimate future as the galaxies collide and stars burn out.

Biographical Sketch:

John Mather

John Mather is Senior Astrophysicist in the Observational Cosmology Laboratory at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and Senior Project Scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope. His research centers on infrared astronomy, cosmology and the origins of the universe.

He earned a BS in Physics from Swarthmore College and a PhD in Physics from UC-Berkeley. He was an NRC Postdoctoral Fellow at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, where he led development of the proposal for the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE). He joined NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center to serve as Study Scientist, then Project Scientist and finally Principal Investigator for COBE's Far Infrared Absolute Spectrophotometer (FIRAS). Using data from FIRAS John showed with unprecedented resolution that the cosmic microwave background radiation has a blackbody spectrum within 50 parts per million, confirming the predictions of the Big Bang theory to extraordinary accuracy.

John received the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics together with George Smoot for the COBE work on the cosmic background radiation. He is also the recipient of many other prizes and awards, including the Gruber Foundation Prize in Cosmology and the Franklin Prize in Physics of the Franklin Institute. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, as well as a fellow of many other learned societies. He is an author on numerous scientific publications and of "First Light" an account of the COBE project.

John works tirelessly for science education and for bringing science to life for the public, especially the young.

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