Letter 6: John Mather is inspired by discoveries in other areas of science

Dear Minnie,

Actually I agree completely that hands-on observing is the way to go when it is possible. There’s nothing like actually touching things and studying them in person to get acquainted. One wouldn’t (I hope) marry somebody over the Internet without meeting him/her! But as time goes on, we all get used to ignoring the inner workings of things, as long as they are reliable. Hardly anyone knows how a car works these days, or even suspects that it has perhaps a hundred microprocessors running little dedicated tasks. So we get to concentrate on top-level issues, like where to go and how. I think modern astronomy has gotten to that point too –- we have software packages with millions of lines of code, and we trust that somebody has made them work right. And we have observatories with complexities that are completely hidden from the users most of the time. Of course, the skeptical and cautious user (i.e. a real scientist!) will not believe everything in the users’ manual for either a telescope or a software package, and will find a way to test every important feature, otherwise we will have a lot of non-science. I think the real breakthrough science will still come from people who push the capabilities of these tools beyond their design limits and test what happens. That will take familiarity with design, and imagination, to picture what cannot be seen.

About James Webb Space Telescope: there’s no such thing as completely reduced data from any observatory. We do expect that the observers will receive data converted into physical units according to the best calibration information and algorithms we have at the time. But if an object is very faint, it will have to be observed over a long period of time with multiple exposures that have to be combined; the process of doing the combination is not so simple, and the cautious observer may want to do it him/herself. But that’s still a very long jump from data gathering to interpretation of the objects way out there — and that remains the observer’s remit. And there is never the final answer to anything, only the best answer we think we have at the time. And yes, the astronomers will know when their proposed objects will be observed. (Small caveat: we are setting up the telescope to have a little autonomy, so if an observation cannot be completed in sequence, the telescope will automatically go to the next one in its list.)

Do I think astronomers talk enough with other astronomers working on different topics? I certainly can’t answer that for other people, but I find it very exciting to know of the discoveries made by people working far from my own speciality. And once in a while a conversation occurs that starts a new field of research, just from asking a question about something that is obvious to one person but not to another. We have dark matter in astronomy that is still a total mystery. But there is a form of dark matter in genetic material too, and just lately it was announced that it is extremely important: the dark matter between the genes is actually a huge collection of millions of digital switches. I don’t know when a breakthrough like that for dark matter and dark energy will occur for astronomers too. But why not? And in another area of astronomy, suddenly we know that there are as many exoplanets as there are stars, that small ones are very abundant, and that many have been expelled into space and have no star any more.

So I think one of the most interesting questions in science is, “what if X happens, then what?” What would be your most interesting question(s)?

All the best,

John Mather


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