April 26, 2016
Colloquium Speaker: John C. Mather
Dr. John C. Mather is a Senior Astrophysicist in the Observational Cosmology Laboratory at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. His research centers on infrared astronomy and cosmology. As an NRC postdoctoral fellow at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (New York City), he led the proposal efforts for the Cosmic Background Explorer (74-76), and came to GSFC to be the Study Scientist (76-88), Project Scientist (88-98), and also the Principal Investigator for the Far IR Absolute Spectrophotometer (FIRAS) on COBE. He showed that the cosmic microwave background radiation has a blackbody spectrum within 50 ppm. As Senior Project Scientist (95-present) for the James Webb Space Telescope, he leads the science team, and represents scientific interests within the project management. He has served on advisory and working groups for the National Academy of Sciences, NASA, and the NSF (for the ALMA, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, and for the CARA, the Center for Astrophysical Research in the Antarctic). He has received many awards including the Nobel Prize in Physics, 2006, for his precise measurements of the cosmic microwave background radiation using the COBE satellite.
Where did we come from, and where are we going? I will outline the history of the universe from its early moments in the Big Bang, to the possible end. Our history is full of beneficial catastrophes, and we wouldn't be here without them: stars explode, the Moon is formed in a giant collision with the Earth, the Earth is bombarded by asteroids and comets for hundreds of millions of years, and multiple extinction events through hot, cold, poison, and asteroid impacts cause rapid evolution of life. But here we are, our ancestors survived and thrived through it all. Now, we can tell the story, we can look for more details, and we can begin to adventure through the solar system and eventually beyond, in partnership with a new entity, artificial intelligence coupled with robotics. Scientific discovery has been propelled by competition (including war) for thousands of years, so it’s immensely important to public policy. I will illustrate with examples including our measurements of the Big Bang, discoveries with the Hubble, gravitational waves, and future telescopes like the James Webb Space Telescope (planned for 2018 launch) and beyond. Within a few decades, we may know that life is common in the universe, or perhaps not.