Former deputy director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, UC Santa Cruz astronomer Garth Illingworth has had a career in hell.
He has devoted decades to the quest to find and understand the most distant galaxies, and was a leader in the team that built the Hubble Space Telescope. And before Hubble was in the sky, it had already started developing the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) – yes, He The James Webb Space Telescope, which is currently blowing the minds of Earthlings on the daily with wildly beautiful images of our universe.
While most of us look at those JWST images and only see pictures, Illingworth and his partners see all that and more: data. In its few operational months, the Web has already offered up a vast breadth of information – findings that have confirmed, confounded, and even the opposite Existing theories about the universe. Curious about the meaning of that data in itself, we spoke to Illingworth to talk about space telescopes, distant worlds, and the ever-evolving scientific process.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.
Futurism: Your work has been extensive. Can you tell us a little bit about your research and where it has taken you?
Garth Illingworth: Sure, I’ll give you the scientific framework. I am an astronomer, and my major interests have been the early galaxies in the universe. Basically, we live in a great, wonderful spiral galaxy, the Milky Way, 13.8 billion years after the Big Bang. But we had to reach this point.
The beginning has long puzzled me since I observed the Hubble Deep Field in 1995—the first deep Hubble image of an empty part of the sky that turned out to be not empty, but absolutely full of galaxies. That’s what I’ve been working on for 25 or so years. In fact, in the ’80s, when I first started thinking about the Web, we didn’t even launch Hubble. Riccardo Giaconi, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute at the time, told me: “You guys really need to work on the next big telescope. Trust me, it’s going to take a long time.”
We had an interesting job to do at that time. We had to project further, even when we didn’t know what Hubble would find. We realized that we should go to longer wavelengths, we should really go to the infrared – we thought there were many ways to reveal aspects of the universe that Hubble would never reveal. It had to be a large telescope to operate in the infrared. It had to be really cold, which meant it needed to go a long way from here. When we look at the drawings now, these are very simple-minded drawings, it’s completely different from the web, but the web actually works and has the features we thought about then. It’s a Big Telescope, It’s Infrared, It’s Really Cold, It’s a Hell Far From Us [laughs],
Correct me if I’m wrong, but you and your team have discovered what is believed to be the most distant and oldest galaxy humans have yet seen, which is about 400 million years after the Big Bang.
Yes. So, about seven or eight years ago, using Hubble, we surprisingly found an object that roughly 400 million, 450 million years After Big Bang. I guess if you had asked me 10 years ago if Hubble would have done this, I would have said there is no way. But it turns out that at Hubble’s limit, we were able to find this early galaxy, and we could actually see it with the Spitzer Space Telescope – we could show that there was an obscure blob there. He sat like a real enigma, for like seven years. We couldn’t learn much about it, but it points to a very interesting change in the way galaxies were forming in early times. So the moment the web debuted, the big question was: is this object unique? Or are there many other people like this?
From early to mid-July within four days of the release of the web data, we already had a paper submitted to the preprint server. Actually, there were two groups to do this on the same day, saying that we have discovered few other objects like that, and one of them was even further away. It was the kind of move we hoped Webb would do – that it would expand our horizons to an earlier time, and it did so incredibly quickly and very well.
I guess that goes back to the issue of working on getting Hubble into space, but already thinking about the next thing. Now, it looks like James Webb is happening too fast – but that’s because there’s already such a huge scientific base.
Yeah exactly. In the late 1990s, after the Hubble Deep Field came out, the goal of finding the first galaxies became a central goal for Webb. But right around that time, we discovered the first exoplanet. Dark energy and dark matter were being discussed. There were so many things that Hubble seemed to know that we knew would make a difference on the web – we just had to wait 23 years.
in July, when first images released, we had an hour where we were all seeing them for the first time, I was sitting in the same auditorium of the Space Telescope where we had our first meeting 33 years ago. It was a little weird, sitting there, looking around God, this room looks a lot like the one we first talked about on the web, and here now we see the first images coming. and they are Absolutely amazing,
One particularly juicy takeaway from James Webb is that some of the new data appears to contradict previous findings. Can you tell us more about an early galaxy that was much more massive than previously thought?
Yes definitely. So this one Which we called GNZ11. is named — not a very imaginative name, but astronomers are pretty boring when it comes to naming objects [laughs] – pointed to something unusual in these early times.
So in the first four days after the release of the Webb images, we wrote these papers, and we realized that GNZ11 was not unique—there were other very bright, very luminous galaxies that we interpreted as unusually massive . Then, within a few weeks, even prematurely, there was another one close to the Big Bang, which was still much larger. It really has been surprising. We have to ask ourselves: is it really that heavy? Or does it actually contain unusual stars that are very bright, but not so massive? We don’t know at this point yet, but the web may answer these questions.
Now what we have to do is go inside and look at those objects in more detail, see if we can learn more about what’s really in that galaxy. How are stars, are there lots of smaller stars that contribute a lot of mass. Theorists are now wondering: How do you make a galaxy like this so quickly, and does it have a black hole that’s forming there too fast? have we been deceived, Galaxies can be very tricky. The universe may play games with you, even if you have web-quality data, but that’s not enough.
What do you think such a situation says about the scientific process itself?
This is interesting, because I would say that in the past the process of doing things was much slower. The data didn’t come very fast. We’ve spent a lot of time working with it, sometimes you have to go back and get something else. Then, you know, the papers will come out, and we’ll be pretty sure. The papers come out, everyone thinks “Oh, that’s great.” Then a year later, some new data comes along that says “well, that was wrong.” You have to recognize that you can be wrong at any time, but when you are wrong, you learn new things.
I guess I’ve never felt particularly bad if people cared as much as they could at the time, and then went back and revisited things. Being wrong isn’t a bad thing, it’s part of the process. And it’s probably inevitable at this stage.
The web has been busy. Are there any upcoming goals on its list that you’re particularly excited to see and explore?
Yes, of the larger image originally shown cluster of galaxies, which I think will be extremely valuable for learning more about galaxies in the future, was pointed out. But I don’t want to emphasize only distant galaxies – exoplanets are going to be amazing, and then of course star-forming regions like the Carina and Tarantula Nebula. They look fantastic, but there’s an incredible amount of science to them, too.
And I would just say, you know, when I was looking at the first images, I was just blown away by the beauty of them and the character, information in there. But one of the things I was thinking about afterward was this: In that hour, I saw, like, six sets of data. I must say, that’s more data than anything in any kind of reasonable time period in my entire life. Scientists have been working on them alone for centuries, because they contain a lot of information. And that was just a pathfinder — I mean, that was tens of hours of time, so we’re gonna multiply that by 100, 1000 times every year.
One thing I’m often asked is: Why does this matter? That’s a lot of money. I’ve thought about this often, and I think the human race has a keen interest in our origins. We are interested in how we came to be, how life came to be. And then you really go, well, we’re sitting on this little planet, how do planets form? You can take this basic question, and that’s what astronomy is really about. Webb, Hubble, these things are just basic machines. And what I really like about it, in many ways, is that we’re living in a very divisive environment, and that interest cuts through beautifully in these political and other areas.
It’s one of those places where we still have some common interests – which I hope we can expand on in the future! The web should at least contribute to this.
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