John Mather, Nobel winner, says people want to know how life started

John Mather: I think people are passionately interested in our own story, from the beginning of time, through the formation of all the places we could possibly live, how life originated here on Earth. We don’t know.

EarthSky spoke with Nobel Prize-winning astrophysicist John Mather at a science meeting in Boston in early 2008, where he was speaking about physics on a grand scale.

John Mather: Scientists are currently able to think about how we got here on this planet Earth. Every step, from the Big Bang to the formation of the first stars and galaxies to the formation of the solar system and the possibility for the Earth to be the right temperature and to provide it with water, all of those things are possibilities for scientists to explore and currently being worked on by international collaborations of people building telescopes, observing the sky through them.

Mather is senior project scientist for one of the next generation of telescopes – after Hubble – the James Webb Telescope. He says the James Webb is about half built, with 5 years to go for it to launch. It should help answer many questions about this universe in which we find ourselves.

John Mather: People do want to know. I think it’s part of our culture that we want to know our origins and want to know where we’re going. And I think it would be really cool if we knew we aren’t alone.

Mather said that large-scale projects like the James Webb Telescope might reveal why our planet is the only wet one in our solar system. What’s more, it’s sensitive enough to study atmospheres of other worlds for signs of life beyond the Earth. It’ll also look at the universe’s infrared light, comparing ice and dust found at the outskirts of our solar system to that found near other stars in the act of forming planets.

John Mather: How Earth became habitable depends on how it was formed. We think that the early solar system was a very hot place, and that the Earth was formed by the merging and collision of numerous smaller planets that were here beforehand. And the final such event was probably the one that created the moon through the incredible collision of a Mars-like object with the Earth, or early Earth. And so that would have cooked everything to an incredible temperature. And there would have been an atmosphere of vaporized rocks circling around the Earth. So that wasn’t a good place to live yet. So probably there was not water there. Where did the water come from?

Our thanks to:
John Mather
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
Greenbelt, MD
Senior Project Scientist
James Webb Space Telescope

June 19, 2008

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