Letter 4: John Mather urges Minnie to use her imagination

Dear Minnie,

I like your strategy of “playing with telescopes” to understand their capabilities and limitations. I think it’s important because so many great discoveries happen at the very edge of capabilities. The amazing story of the early galaxies is only barely discernible from tiny coloured dots on the Hubble deep field images, and it has taken tremendous persistence on the part of the observers and instrument builders to know how to a) get scientific discoveries from little colored dots, and b) get better equipment to see them more clearly. Similarly, what we know of exoplanets has come mostly from people who knew how to push the capabilities of existing equipment (first), and then pushed to get better equipment (after the richness of the discoveries became apparent).

One strategy for pushing the limits is to work on a boundary between one discipline and another. I may have mentioned the story of Bill Press, one of the authors of the famous Numerical Recipes series. The last time I saw Bill, he had returned from administrative work to academic research, but he did not go back to physics, he went into biology. He says it’s a lot of fun knowing physics and math and taking that expertise into a new field where almost nobody knows what he does.

Bill’s special point is that he knows a set of tools really well, and it relates to knowing a telescope really well. You seem a bit concerned that you won’t be able to learn enough about telescopes without touching them. I have that feeling too, but I think we are more and more able to experience things we can’t see or touch. After all, astronomy is all about things we can only see from immense distances! I’m writing this on a computer controlled by an operating system I’ve never seen, running on hardware I’ve never seen, based on quantum mechanics that hardly anyone understands, and nevertheless at least a billion people know how to use computers. I’m working on a giant telescope that for years existed only in the imagination, along with a few documents and viewgraph packages, and now two of the four instruments are delivered and all of the mirrors are finished.

So, our challenge is to use our imagination to the fullest! Hands-on observing is a way to build that imagination, but total immersion in using something you can’t touch still works. So to answer your question, yes, I truly expect there will be many people with the expertise to come up with something truly innovative. We are building the JWST so that a generation of people who were not even born when it was started will be able to use it for breathtaking discoveries.

Fear not, just dive in! Do you have a favorite telescope to learn about? Where do you see the greatest potential for discoveries, especially for you?

John

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