Episode 111: James Webb Space Telescope: More Than Pretty Pictures

In this episode of WTHJH, Paul discusses the incredible scientific potential of the James Webb Space Telescope with his friend, Dr. Ed Prather, Executive Director of the Center for Astronomy Education at the University of Arizona. More than just giving us pretty pictures of deep space, recent advances in science promise to bring us closer to answers about things like the origin of the universe and whether or not we are the only planet supporting life. Tune in for a crash course on interstellar history. You might even learn a thing or two about running a business along the way…


Voiceover: You’re about to listen to another episode of What The Hell Just Happened?! Join Paul and his guests as they discuss and sometimes even solve some interesting HR problems.

Paul: And… I’m gonna go off the rails sometimes and talk about whatever I want!

Paul: My guest today is Dr. Ed Prather. I know him as Ed. He is a good friend of mine. He’s a professor in the Department of Astronomy at the University of Arizona, of course, Tucson and the University of Arizona are located in the same place. He’s the Executive Director of the Center for Astronomy Education. I am just super pleased to have Ed here today. We’re going to talk about astronomy and science and all sorts of great things. I hope you enjoy today’s show.

Okay Ed, you and I were sitting at the house chatting. And we were just talking about the kind of, well, the first thing was about the pictures that everybody’s showing about the James Webb Telescope.

Ed: Yeah.

Paul: And the pictures are cool. But you expressed some frustration around that, because the telescope is so much more than these pictures that it’s producing. Now, I think the pictures are interesting. And I think we’re going to talk about some cool stuff about how this telescope works.

Ed: For sure, yeah, yeah, yeah.

Paul: Okay, so…

Ed: You want to kind of dig in on my frustration?

Paul: Yeah, would you dig into your frustration?

Ed: So, you know, my area, as you mentioned, you know, prior is in science and science education.

Paul: Yep.

Ed: And, you know, some of the work that my PhD students and I’ve been working on is to try to figure out how to help the students in my class who are essentially non-science majors, the general public in their last science course in life, understand the role of science in society.

Paul: Right.

Ed: And the great risk in having a NASA Administrator, or these spokespeople for the James Webb mission, or anybody who’s sort of peddling the images on the internet and social media, talk about inspiring, and beautiful, and awe, suggests that it’s an art project to me and that’s a big problem. If your goal, my goal, and others, like myself, are trying to help the public understand the role of science and society isn’t to create pretty pictures…

Paul: Right

Ed: … but to discover unknown unknowns. This is a really big deal. We’re discoverers. We’re trying to find the limits of what’s possible to know. And it’s not so that we can take a picture of it.

Paul: Yeah.

Ed: It is so that it could lead to deeper understandings about the natural world. And those deeper understandings, as I just said, are unknown unknowns. We don’t necessarily even know what we’re gonna find. Sometimes they’re known unknowns, we’re gonna find more of things that we need to know more about. But in any result that comes from that, there’s another kind of tier of… of goal that comes with this, which is, it could improve our quality of life. It could improve our ability to exist on this planet and in this universe because it will reveal the laws of nature.

And all of what has taken us from the Stone Ages, through the Dark Ages, and then suddenly to now, this… this incredible civilization we live in has come from discoveries in science. And the James Webb Space Telescope is going to collect information about a part of the history of the universe that has never been seen. And it has implications to our understanding of the natural world in our lives, and that isn’t being conveyed. And that… that, to me, is a huge opportunity missed by the science community and especially the James Webb community, and how they’re sharing what is coming out of this science instrument, the telescope, and what it’s possible for the public to understand. Because, frankly, we have to beg for the money.

Paul: Right!

Ed: And if the public thinks we’re on an art project, we’ve made a mistake.

Paul: Right. I’m going to unpack what you just said a little bit more. What this telescope is doing has a real application… has real applications to real-world solutions to problems that are going on. Ed, when I grew up in the 70s and the 80s, it was kind of a normal thing to say, you know, “This thing came from a NASA project. This thing that you can do now, this is something that they did in the space program.” So I’ve actually seen things happen in space and then get applied back to back to real life.

Ed: I used to give a talk about this, and this is gonna get a little funky.

Paul: It’s okay.

Ed: I would make an analogy, that if it were 1900-ish, your use of technology at home was an outhouse.

Paul: Got it.

Ed: Right? But you know what? We were discovering that all of matter is comprised of something called an atom.

Paul: Oh, yeah.

Ed: And we were just in science probing matter to find out what are the properties of this thing  you can’t actually touch, feel. You can only observe how it behaves, sort of, and that tells you physical parameters, laws, and characteristics. Meanwhile, the public is using an outhouse. That chasm between your lived experience of technology – an outhouse in 1900 – and our understanding of the atom. How did that science community, who is developing an understanding of matter and energy and quantum mechanics, can convey that to the public? It was almost impossible, that chasm’s so large. We’re living in that exact same moment right now. Except the outhouse right now is your cell phone.

Paul: Right.

Ed: You take it for granted. It’s not… the things that are in that are Nobel prizes from the last 100 years, packed in that thing.

Paul: Packed into that thing.

Ed: And you take it for granted, and it just has less poo on it. But I’m trying to say, what JWST is going to find and is set to discover, is like the atom in that you can’t… once you find its properties, it’s not like in real time, you can say, “And here’s all the things that will happen over the next 100 years”. It’s discovery.

Paul: You don’t know! You don’t know.

Ed: And so when you say, “There are going to be things that spin off”… it was easier in NASA’s time. This is a new kind of battery or motor or drink or hydration system or what, but this is fundamental science. So one of the things I said to my students in my class is, at the end of the semester as things go on, I point to the – on the wall in my classroom, there’s a periodic table of elements – and I tell them, “Those are the atoms we know about. Turns out that’s very little of what the universe actually is.”

Paul: Right.

Ed: And JWST is going to help us better understand where it all comes from and how it all got to this point and what might exist beyond what is on that periodic table of elements. So, the amount of unknown unknowns is huge. And this is what makes science exciting to scientists, is discovery. And so that’s being lost, I think, in part of what’s happening.

Paul: I think it really… yeah, yeah. It is just being completely lost. I mean, to the point where they’re comparing pictures, photographs, this one’s taking with photographs that Hubble took.

Ed: And saying, Oh gosh, don’t we have a prettier, a better camera?” Better camera, it’s about     taking better pictures of the same things.

Paul: I also think that by, you know, kind of talking about how important this work is in discovery, also is what draws young people into this conversation and gets them excited about STEM, gets them excited to learn about the sciences. And on the other side of it, it gets folks like me to tell my congressman, “Yeah vote for that. Put more money into it. I feel good about spending money in NASA.” This is the first time in a long time since the space shuttle. And again, in that we were talking about putting a mechanical thing into the air over and over and over again.

Ed: You know, Paul, you’re hitting on something that I also bring up that I think is really interesting. And I don’t think we’ve talked enough about this. Our push to go to the moon-

Paul: Yeah?

Ed:  …wasn’t a discovery mission.

Paul: Right!

Ed: It was happening because of the Cold War.

Paul: Yeah, we’re competing.

Ed: It was chosen as one of the things we could have put congressional money towards and it was deemed, “That’ll be the one that will inspire the public the most.” And it was done because we had a nemesis, which is a real bummer to think. We could only get the, I mean, the whole country was behind this, like, “We’re gonna do this,” and they were into science more than ever right then, that kind of moment in time. I think we could resurrect a common goal of science in the country now without having to erect a nemesis.

Paul: Yeah.

Ed: And it could be based on challenges that we have, or opportunities that we have, through science and I think you’re hitting on that. You could help young people… And I think there’s never been a better time. Young people… the current crop of young people are very empathetic, they’re very tuned in to what is going on in the world that is not fantastic. So, maybe the nemesis, if you will, is their desire to help change where we’re at now to where we could be, and showing them that this is a pathway to make that happen is an important thing that we need to be doing with science. One of the fields that does this well is health and medicine. They do this really well. They have been marketing this for you know, “We’re gonna cure this. We’re gonna solve that.” And it’s very obviously tangible your existence. This thing is billions of light years away. You’re like, “What the hell’s that have to do with anything?” It’s a little bigger challenge, which I like. I enjoy that challenge. But it’s a hard sell sometimes.

Paul: Yeah, it’s a hard sell. So I want to put this in a very specific and practical way. Let’s just use climate change as an example for something that needs to be solved. And I’m hearing two arguments. We have to stop doing things the way we’re doing. Burn less of this, use more of that. It’s a very present thing that we have to do. The other side of the argument I’m hearing is the solution to some of the problems with climate change is technology

Ed: And innovation.

Paul: And it’s not here yet.

Ed: And, moreover, to win an argument in this society, which is so strongly based on free market, it’s also an economic opportunity. We could innovate a new world of technologies that the world needs and profit from it. Just like we did other things that were tech based in the last 20 years that have turned into the things we all are playing with that are app based, you know? So, you know, we need a revolution and battery and energy density storage. We need, we need revolutions in a whole bunch of different things. We need infrastructure that could be developed at a different scale factor and cost that could be disseminated around the world. There’s all sorts of things, you know? This leads to the idea also that, what if we shifted from – this is a different societal thing, you know – the nature of trying to push people into college for some reason, versus pushing people into trades that might be more about climate? You know, what is the new version of electrician? And what is the new version of machinist? And what does the new version of that all have to do with solving different problems that our society is really facing? I have lots of beliefs about this. I’ve got a PhD student that we’ve done research on this. I wrote my first paper about the “Greenhouse Effect” in the early 90s, where I argued, “Oh, my God, what are we going to do as a society?” And the first papers written about this are over 100 years old. Scientists were writing about the nature of how the atmosphere interacts with infrared light from the planet – the greenhouse effect – a long time ago and making the predictions about today. Science has been on this. But politicians, business, everybody hasn’t been on the same page, there are a lot of deniers. This is all part of what I do for research. And, you know, I want to make one thing clear: the Earth doesn’t care.

Paul: Right.

Ed: Earth is fine. Earth could care less. It’ll just, like, move around some energy here and there. There’ll be some different storms here and there. There will be some erosion, some dirt will move here and there. Some coastlines will change. There’ll be some changes [indiscernible]… like, “I’m good. I’ll be fine. I’ll come to a new equilibrium down the road. And then another one after that, and another one after that.” But we are very sensitive creatures to change. And we may not, and all the fuzzy little creatures we love and all…

Paul: And the food.

Ed: And the food web and all that. So, really, I hate to get really kind of…

Paul: Scientific?

Ed: No, not scientific, rough on everybody. But the real problem is, there’s just too many of us. That’s really the only problem is population size.

Paul: And what we’re doing as a population.

Ed: And how we’re sustaining this population. And there’s some great… there’s a wonderful TED talk. I wish I could remember the guy’s name, I’m gonna say Lars Olson or something like that. He does an amazing talk to show how we are destined to have about 11 billion people on this planet. It’s coming and we can’t stop it. The number of people that are currently on the earth will produce that much next. That’s our only problem right now is how do we deal with that? You know, and it’s all energy, food production, transport, all of those things – heating – it’s all an energy problem.

Paul: And I prefer to think that, coming full circle back, that some of what we may learn in space now, the way we’re learning it with this telescope, is going to have an impact on that.

Ed: Or other fields will be the ones that dominate it. But I’ll give you a for instance: maybe the energy-density-storage thing comes out of something. Or maybe the transport of energy – AE light and information – will be emboldened by it. Because we are developing different ways to transport data for this mission, for instance. You know, there’s all sorts of… whether the spin offs come immediately or 50 years from now are not easy to know. But if you’re not… I don’t want to be in the country that isn’t trying.

Paul: That isn’t trying.

Ed: I don’t want to become a service-industry country where all we do is a call center and we don’t make anything. I want to stay in the place where we’re at the edge of discovery and helping… and using that to help what is possible to do and prosperity and ending of suffering. That would be amazing to me, to stay a country like that.

Paul: Yeah. And you know, that starts with folks like you who are teaching teachers to teach the subject that we’re talking about here.

Ed: And teaching future politicians to understand this is their obligation, and lawyers, and business leaders, and parents, and taxpayers, and voters. I tell them this in my class, like, that this is a class to brainwash you into understanding that you’re a citizen who has all of these different obligations in society, whether you have kind of come to realize it or not as a person who just left high school a few months ago, you know, in your last science course in life.

Paul: Yeah. So you teach freshmen, right?

Ed: Non-science-major freshmen.

Paul: Non-science-major freshmen,.

Ed: So they’re obligated to take some science course.

Paul: Oh, and they get stuck with you.

Ed: They get kind of a buffet… like, I could take physics and chemistry… and astronomy. Isn’t that Astrology? I’m just you know, you never know why they’re in my class, but it sounds better than most of them. And they walk in and don’t realize it’s astrophysics. That’s what astronomy is. But that doesn’t mean I’m doing the same thing I do in a physics class.

Paul: Of course not.

Ed: You know, or a majors astronomy course. And so it’s really a class engineered, cultivated for that population explicitly. Like, they’re going to encounter the astronomy that I believe has the most relevance to them appreciating what science does and what astronomy is doing and has the most impact on affecting their worldview so that science becomes a thing that is of value and merit in their worldview.

Paul: So, for our one listener – we have one listener for the podcast – for our one listener, every now and then Ed will come in, and we’ll be talking, maybe having a beer. And he’ll say, “Let me try this out on you because I’m going to introduce this concept to my students and I want to see if you can get it right.” So I think what Ed’s saying is, “If you can understand it, anybody can understand it.”

Ed: And just so you know, Paul’s not the only one I do this to, but he’s a good… He’s one of my favorite samples.

Paul: Yeah. So, Ed explained to me something about the Webb Telescope that was very unique about it, which was its use of infrared.

Ed: Oh yeah.

Paul: And the spectrum. And I want you to talk about it, but I want to share something with you. You explained it to me and then I tried explaining it to other people. And then when I couldn’t get it quite right, I went in and started kind of… you know, I started studying it, finding some resources on it. So the other day, I’m in a Reddit – in the science subreddit – and somebody says something about the, I think they call it “near red” or something like that.

Ed: Near Infrared or mid infrared.

Paul: Yeah, something like that. And then I saw a guy correct the guy and say, “No, this is what it means.” And then another guy came in… Oh, by the way. When I read the first guy’s correction, I went, “Oh, he didn’t get it right.” And then another guy came in and corrected the first guy. And I thought to myself, “Oh, he didn’t get it right, either.” And then a third guy, because you guys are all scientists in there, a third guy came in and re-explained it over the top of the two of them. And I went, “Is that you Ed?” Because I see you do such a good job that I actually, I mean, I may not be a great teacher of the subject, of that particular theory that, you know, how that works. But I was able to recognize that it didn’t work and now I’m vested.

Ed: I mean, one of the things is to plant a sliver that you can’t stop itching. It just infests you.

Paul: Yeah. That’s the science, right?

Ed: And that’s curiosity. You know, that’s passion. That’s… there’s a… inside… all of us is this inherent desire to want to know things. And sometimes it’s gossip and stuff that has no value, really, but we can’t help it. I want people to feel that way about the natural world. I want them to kind of feel that way about astronomy being the vehicle that is helping us understand everything beyond Earth. I want to make that interesting and important. Everything beyond Earth is actually everything. Because Earth is really nothing in comparison to the universe. And there’s only one field is trying to discover everything beyond Earth and that’s astronomy. And I want… I think that’s an inspiring, if you will, way to kind of think about why we would want to do this. You can only learn so much about how the entire physical world works by studying Earth and what’s happening here. And, so, that idea that you kind of went, you were like, “Wait a minute. That’s not exactly how Ed and I were talking about it.” But if I can plant a rich enough, still complex enough, but easily understandable seed inside of you where you feel like, “I feel like I can almost reproduce that narrative if I had to,” you kind of hold on to it, you don’t just let it go. It’s not over your head, you kind of got stuck going “God dang it. I kind of get that, don’t I?” Well, that’s the game. That’s the game in education. Can I give you a game to play where you can feel successful? Because, if I can do that, I can give you a harder game to play right after it. And I can level up to you being at the level of my class… I tell them, “You’re going to be at the level at the end of the semester, where you’re doing the same, you know, eight-step piece of reasoning that we are doing in the science of this discipline. You’re just not doing it all with math. That’s the only real difference.” And, if I can do that with you, then when you go home and somebody at the dinner table says something and you get to share it with grandma and auntie and dad and everybody’s there, they’re gonna go, “Huh. Maybe there was a couple of dollars we spent on sending you to school that haven’t been worthless.” And you become an ambassador of science. So that’s my goal. It’s to create ambassadors.

Paul: That… So that is really an amazing, an awesome way to be. Like, that is a great purpose in life.

Ed: It’s the one that helped me sustain this career. I could have done a lot of things, and I kind of found that the currency that filled my soul happened in that classroom. All of a sudden, I was like, “Oh, I could do this. I was going to… No, I’m going to do this”. Being a teacher and being with, in particular in classes with the public rather than majors, has been my career. And it’s absolutely what I needed to find to be able to do the hard work.

Paul: So it’s your purpose.

Ed: So it’s my purpose.

Paul: Yes, if this was missing, it would be a big missing for you.

Ed: I would be looking for something and I don’t have another direction I really want to go other than racing cars and motorcycles. And that’s, frankly, not going to be my career.

Paul: How… I know you wish… Ed, how many students do you think you’ve taught?

Ed: Probably on the order of 6000.

Paul: Okay. So, I’m going to say the other thing that would be missing if you weren’t doing this would be that those 6000 students didn’t get this conversation exactly the way that you can give this conversation with the kind of passion that you do and that’s part of purpose. Like, you know, bringing this full circle, when a business has to define what its purpose is, one of the things that has to… you have to ask yourself is, “What would my community be like if my business wasn’t here on Monday, all of a sudden? What would be missing from the world?” That’s where chill bumps come from. That’s what… that’s, to me, what matters.

Ed: I share at the start… to normalize my class, to create a safe and inclusive environment, to help them feel an obligation to keep showing up, all of that stuff really matters to the active learning environment I’m going to create because it’s not lecture. I don’t lecture. I might have 300 students and we’re gonna work in small groups every day in class, so I have to get them on board with that version of the game. And, so, I’m extremely vulnerable. I tell them I’m a first generation college student, I started at a community college while I was a crane mechanic for a living; that I did not take to science and math easily. I had to start in a class that started with fractions and decimals. And that I struggled pretty much the whole way to PhD. It was never easy. And that I’m very sensitive to where they’re at. Often, as, you know, we have a lot of veterans on campus, many of them are Hispanic students who are also first generation like I was, you know, there’s a lot of different aspects of me letting them know I was vulnerable. I feel like I’m an impostor the whole time I do this for a living, and that I really care about them. My whole purpose in doing this is to help them, I don’t have another agenda. I want all of them to get an A if they could. And that, the research I share with them is to demonstrate that if you do these things, every day in class, you guys are gonna know more astronomy than almost anybody on the planet. And that I care about… my passion is doing this, I’m not being twisted by some other set of rules a university has to have to teach. This is my number-one thing I want to do. So you have my full attention. And I’ll be here every day working as hard as I can. And I think all of that matters to the success of the class and the way in which they interpret why they’re there and what’s possible to do in that space together. And I hear, at my end-of-the-semester evaluations, pretty amazing things at times, you know? Like, “This is one of the few classes I took here where I really felt like X, Y, and Z.” So being, as a business owner working with customers, the other group of people I work with are university faculty who’ve never been taught how to teach. And I run workshops on how do you do what I do in the classroom for faculty. I just left doing it last weekend. And that’s the other population that I try to do all these same kinds of things, was to help them evolve their beliefs about their role in the classroom and what’s possible to do with their students. So, like a business owner who has clients, understanding them…

Paul: Employees. Okay. So, if I take that and kind of transcend it back to the business world, when, if an owner has the kind of passion and understanding of their purpose that you were able to just express – and by the way, Ed that is… it didn’t just come out on day one. This is something that’s evolved in you. Not understanding of where you are, and to be able to articulate it is not very easy to do. It takes a while. You have to keep working on it. And… but the benefits are so big when you are inspired and you understand where you are and what your role is.

Ed: And you care about the people deeply. Deeply.

Paul: And that’s one of the big things that we try to say when we give presentations. We try to stop for a minute and say, “Care about the people.”

Ed: Yeah, you’ve gotta care.

Paul: Care about the people who work around you. And if you’d like for them to follow you, give them an understanding of what their purpose is, what your mission is, what your vision is.

Ed: Share the successes.

Paul: Share the successes.

Ed: All of it. Be transparent. Be vulnerable. All of it.

Paul: Vulnerability is another big… is another big deal. We could get into that. So, Ed…

Ed: You want to hear some JWST stuff?

Paul: Yeah, give me, give us some. This is what we’re going to use to kind of go to in the podcast. Give us some.

Ed: Well, I mean, the thing that we were talking about that I think is really interesting. So, there’s a lot of layers to this. We got to figure out where we want to start. When you look at the sun in the sky right now, that’s not the sun. That’s the light that left the sun eight minutes ago.

Paul: Gotcha.

Ed: You’re not seeing the sun in real time. If something changed on the sun…

Paul: Eight minutes later, you would you get that.

Ed: You wouldn’t see for eight minutes. That’s the sun eight minutes ago, because light traveling at the speed of light still takes eight minutes to get from the sun to here. What does that mean, then, if you go further away? Like, in the Milky Way Galaxy, all the stars you see at night are nearby stars in the Milky Way Galaxy. Not in our solar system because the sun’s the only star in our solar system. There’s about 100 billion – and I’m sorry, in astronomy, it’s like all the numbers are ridiculous – over 100 billion stars in this thing called the Milky Way galaxy. Most of them are planets. We know that now. And we’re just in one of those solar systems, a star that has planets. You look out in the sky, those are all just different stars with their own solar systems around them. And they’re all light years away – light years; like 10s of light years; 100s of light years; 1000s of light years. That means those stars that you see in the sky, you’re seeing what they looked like, a year ago? No, 100 years ago. 1000 years ago.

Paul: A million years ago?

Ed: Not in our galaxy. Now, if you want to get to millions scale – and I’m glad that you want to leave kind of 100s and 1000s – the next scale is millions. That’s the nearby galaxy, not our galaxy, a neighboring galaxy. Andromeda looks a lot like our galaxy, we think, two and a half million light years away. So, what… any time we’re looking at Andromeda, we’re seeing what it was doing two and a half million years ago. Telescopes are time machines that can look backwards into time. That’s all they can do actually. They have to do that. They don’t have a choice. We never get to see the now. We only get to see the past and we take an image of it. So we have a snapshot of the past. Okay? If you want to know what happened in the universe before then, you’ve got to look further away so that you’re looking at something whose light took even longer to get to here. And, now you’re gonna see even further back in time. Now there’s a problem that goes with this. Every time you look further away, the objects get dimmer, just like in your life.

Paul: All right.

Ed: So now you’ve got a double problem. You’re like, “Okay, I can only see the past. I’m going to live with that. But that’s actually kind of cool. That means I could see earlier in the universe and stack times together and make a storybook of what the universe has been doing over time. But if I want to see the earlier times, I got to build a telescope that’s capable of seeing what was going on earlier in time.” That means it’s got to be really sensitive, like the amazing camera, they can see really dim things. Well, it turns out, one of the ways we do that is by building bigger and bigger and bigger mirrors.

Paul: Yeah yeah.

Ed: JWST is 18 mirrors in a honeycomb shape to make one big mirror in space. And that has its own advantages. So, on Christmas day, it was launched in 20-… Oh gosh, I can’t remember the exact date… So it’s 2021 Christmas Day it’s launched. And it arrives at this place orbiting the Earth and sun called a Lagrangian Point. It’s a special place in space where, if you do the gravitational calculations and you park something there, it will orbit with the earth around the sun and just stay in that spot. You won’t get… it can… its own unique location; it won’t get close to Earth won’t get closer to the sun…

Paul: It’s a dead spot.

Ed: … it’ll make its own orbit around the sun. And, what’s amazing about that is, if you point it away nothing of the earth or the moon or any that are shining on it, so you don’t get any of that. It’s in the shadow of those objects. And it can be… you can position it such that – if you ever looked at a picture of the JWST, it has this big wedge-shaped base to it – that’s a shield to shield it from the sun.

Paul: Oh, I didn’t know that.

Ed: So it can look out in space anytime it wants to and observe all over the place. So it’s a space telescope at a Lagrangian Point, which is amazing and cool. Especially if you’re physics geek like me, you’re like, “That’s amazing and cool.” Now, that means it can peer into space for a long time. It doesn’t orbit the Earth and keep moving all the time. It can sit there and look at that same spot and space that it wants to look at further. That means…

Paul: It’s not blasting through space. It’s not moving.

Ed: And it can continuously be looking at the same spot in space for a long time. And that means it can hold its camera lens, if you will, open for a long time. Now I can get a whole bunch of photons from something unbelievably dim. And if I watch it for long enough, it’ll start to appear on my camera.

Paul: Right.

Ed: So, now I’m gonna get to the deep end of the pond here. So we get to nearby galaxies a million light years away. Most distant galaxies are on the order of billions of light years away. So you’re seeing the age of the universe is roughly 13.5-.7 billion years old. So the things that are furthest away from us are happening, the light we get from them, what was happening at the beginning of time, we’ve never seen that. There’s a reason this telescope, as you brought up earlier, is an infrared telescope.

Paul: Yeah, I love this part.

Ed: This is the trippy part.

Paul: I love this part.

Ed: So, there’s another facet of the universe we have to bring into this. And that is that the universe’s size is growing.

Paul: Right.

Ed: It’s expanding.

Paul: It’s expanding. I love it.

Ed: What is expanding is space and time.

Paul: Got it.

Ed: Every object in the universe is embedded in a web of space and time. Space and time is a thing. It has properties, if you will, okay? And objects of mass – planets, stars, galaxies – are embedded in it.

Paul: Okay.

Ed: So the universe is like a big spandex dress.

Paul: Oh, I like that.

Ed: It’s stretchy. And it has sequins in it, but sequins of different masses and colors and sizes and they sink into the space and time…

Paul: Gotcha.

Ed: …fabric of the universe. But the fabric’s growing. And that causes the sequins to be moving away from each other in every possible direction. So every sequins looks out in the universe and sees every other thing, every other galaxy.

Paul: Getting farther and farther away.

Ed: And that makes it think it’s the center. But if every location thinks it’s the center, then there is no center.

Paul: They’d be humans.

Ed: So, we’re in a universe that is expanding. Every galaxy has a unique or special place to view from, but we all see about the same thing that’s part of what the rules of this are. Now, here’s the problem: If really early in the universe, you had very first stars, very first galaxies forming and they’re really in a hot environment and they’re giving off a tremendous amount of light, that light is going to be predominantly at visible wavelengths. The same wavelengths, our eyes are sensitive to.

Paul: That we can see, yeah.

Ed: Because the temperature, the objects and all that. That light, though, now is going to travel to us. And it’s going to travel for 10s of, you know, almost 12, 13 billion years. In that time, the universe was expanding the entire time. Those photons are traveling in the fabric of space and time

Paul: Okay.

Ed: And the fabric is stretching. That means it’s taking those photons of light that were visible when they were first emitted by the object in the early part of the universe’s time and it’s stretching those photons’ wavelengths to longer and longer wavelengths. Now, where we are receiving that light at JWST, at the Webb Telescope, those wavelengths are now infrared. The entire beginning of the universe…

Paul: … is in Infrared.

Ed: … is an Infrared Universe. And now, so if we ever wanted to see it, we had to tune a telescope to those wavelengths that we calculated the early universe’s wavelengths would be now based on what we know about the expansion of the universe. This is not a story that’s possible to tell earlier in the history of humankind; even earlier than the 1900s. This is all stuff we’ve come to understand in literally the last 100 years. And we developed a technology to put something in space at a Lagrangian Point with four instruments on a telescope made of honeycomb-shaped mirrors…

Paul: In a dead spot.

Ed: …pointed away from the sun in a dead spot, tuned to the exact right frequencies of light, wavelengths of light, to see the light that left the early universe at its beginnings and has been traveling for 13 billion years and it’s going to unlock what is the beginning. And we’ve been blind to it in astronomy for all time until now. That’s badass. And the thing that is really amazing is it took a telescope that could sit there and stare at one spot for a long time to be able to see the incredibly dim amount of light that’s coming to this stupid little location we’re at. It’s so far away, now, that light has been spread out for so long, we’re getting just little tiny bits of the initial photons that were leaving that initial location. So you have to have a telescope that’s incredibly sensitive and has a very, very small field of view.

This is another thing. If you hold a dime at arm’s length, the thin way – not, so you’re looking at the disk – that little slit you’d make on the sky, if you held your arm out and made a little motion on the sky, that’s the size of what James Webb looks into. A little tiny slit. And when you see those images, and you see them packed with galaxies. And you see them able to zoom in on one galaxy and show incredible resolution, that gets us excited, because that means the science we can do is going to be incredible. We’re going to be able to do incredible science because we can get up close and personal to the beginning objects in the universe by having all this technology in play.

Paul: Right

Ed: And it’s going to unpack first stars, first galaxies, the nature of how energy, dark matter, dark energy arise in the universe. And it’s going to do one other thing that I think is critical to not miss and that is… So, over the last 30 years, we have done something that seems like science fiction, but it’s amazing. We’ve been able to detect planets outside of our solar system, orbiting other stars, all of them in the Milky Way – nearby stuff, right? – and come to realize solar systems are common. We hoped they would be. And we’re finding out they are. I know of on the order of 5000 planets now that have been detected orbiting other stars in their own solar systems, and they aren’t like our solar systems. Our solar system seems a little different, in some ways, to much of what we’re seeing. Sometimes we see planets that are similar to ours and locations like ours, but we see crazy stuff, like planets the size of Jupiter at the location of Mercury. It shouldn’t be there. It’s teaching us that the universe has got a lot of different ways it behaves than our solar system was going to teach us. And I work in another field called astrobiology, the search for life in the universe.

Paul: Uh huh…

Ed: And what if we could detect if life is present on another planet?

Paul: Just by using a telescope?

Ed: Just by the light.

Paul: Just to analyze.

Ed: Not going there, not scooping, not a chunk of pond scum… Just the photons coming into the telescope. Could we know that? So, one way to know if we could know that is, could we even detect it here?

Paul: And I bet we can.

Ed: We’ve done research to look at the light that comes through our atmosphere. Just look at the chemical composition of that light. Rather, I’m sorry, the chemical composition of our atmosphere revealed by light going through the atmosphere. So, molecules in your atmosphere and living things on the surface of the Earth make a signature in light, in infrared, that says, “Oh, there’s these kind of molecules and these kind of molecules, and they only exist in these abundances or these types if life is present.” So Webb had a promise, which was, “We’re going to look at planet atmospheres. We’re such an amazing telescope, we’re going to narrow down on where we know there is a planet and we’re going to look at the light from the star going…

Paul: Life or not?

Ed: … through the planet’s atmosphere and go, “Does it have the fingerprint of life on it?” That discovery is imminent. I’ve been saying for 20 years to my classes, “Somewhere in your lifetime you’re going to…” It’s imminent now. Like, this telescope is gonna do it. And there’s gonna – this is my great fear. Webb is gonna get an amazing image, an image, a piece of data – spectra – of this fingerprint of the molecules in an atmosphere of a planet that says, “This only occurs in these abundances if there’s life. We just found evidence for life.” And it’s gonna hit the news media for 10 seconds. And the public’s gonna go, “Whatever, I dunno if I Trust the scientists. I don’t really know. There could be other reasons…”

Paul: Yeah.

Ed: And we’re gonna be like, “Are you kidding? We just found Genesis…

Paul: Yeah.

Ed: “… elsewhere. We just discovered we’re not alone. We didn’t say we know exactly what it is. But we now have candidates for where it is, and that’s supposed to be amazing to human beings.” I don’t want us to live in a society that goes, “Oh, whatever,” and just moves on as if nothing happened. That would really break my heart.

Paul: Well…

Ed: But we’ll see.

Paul: I can get into the pace of how information gets given to us and how we just process it. And we used to talk about things for five days instead of for five minutes. And an online group on Reddit for with a bunch of strangers we don’t know…

Ed: But these are some of the promises of Webb.

Paul: Yeah.

Ed: Like, it’s a new eye on the universe.

Paul: Uh huh.

Ed: And that means the unknown unknowns are… So imagine this: you’ve got to pitch the science mission to the funding agencies based on things you know. And your pitch is based on what you can argue we will be able to do; not what we don’t know.

Paul: Okay, hang on a second. Hang on a second.

Ed: It’s a trippy thing.

Paul: This is one of my, again, this is another one of my favorite conversations because this wraps into mission and vision and all that stuff. So, at some point, someone decided that James Webb Telescope as a concept could be something and it would do some things?

Ed: Okay, yeah, let me say, I want to dovetail this to another telescope really quick if I can.

Paul: Yeah, what there’s two telescopes, Ed?

Ed: These are two important ones to talk about. There’s a thing that happens called the decadal survey in science where your discipline of science every decade, 10 years, argues to Congress, to funding agencies, “What are the most fundamental things that should be happening in your science? And how could we accomplish that?” So, kind of advocating for all the science missions that are on the table, which ones have the most promise? The two biggies from a decadal survey over 10 years ago now were James Webb, and another one at the time that was known as the LSST. The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope, which has a new name, which is much better than that. But it’s the name of the observatory is now Rubin… Vera C. Rubin Observatory. And inside of it is the Somoni Telescope. And the mission is called the Legacy Survey of Space and Time. So, I still say LSST because I’m old school, but it’s the Legacy Survey of Space and Time. So, instead of being a space telescope, it’s on a mountain and it’s being built right now on a mountain in Chile. Instead of looking at a little tiny part of the sky, a little tiny slit…

Paul: A dime.

Ed: … imagine putting your hand up in a fist at arm’s length and making a spot on the sky. You can fit 40 moons in that.

Paul: Okay.

Ed: It takes an image that size every 30 seconds.

Paul: So that’s…

Ed: Instead of days and days or hours and hours looking at one spot, it goes, “I’m gonna hit this spot in the sky the size of a fist every 30 seconds and I’m gonna gather everything in the universe to 12 billion light years deep in time in a column that size.” And then in three to five seconds, about five seconds, it’s gonna go to a neighboring spot and do it again and go, boom, boom, boom. So its field of view is wide. Its cadence from location to location is fast. And the amount of information it gets is really deep into the universe because it has the most powerful camera ever created.

Paul: Gotcha.

Ed: It’s the size of a Mini Cooper.

Paul: Wow.

Ed: I don’t even know how to express like…

Paul: That’s just the camera.

Ed: I don’t know how to express how many phones of pixels it has in it. But if you wanted to demonstrate all the data that is in one image, it would take something like 400 4k telephones and the size of a basketball court.

Paul: Okay. Wow.

Ed: Wow. It’s generating an amount of data that is sort of unheard of. It creates, gosh – what is it? – it’s creating an amount of data that is 20 terabytes of data per night.

Paul: Wow.

Ed: 500 petabytes over its 10-year mission. We have our own optical fiber network of cables going from Chile to the US just for that telescope.

Paul: Where does it terminate?

Ed: In a national data center in Illinois.

Paul: Wow.

Ed: It is the most data… it is producing more data than all of astronomy in small periods… it’s going to overwhelm… And what it’s going to do is it’s going to map the entire sky every three to four days, and then it’s going to do it again, and then it’s going to do it again, and then it’s going to do it again for 10 years.

Paul: Wow.

Ed: We’ve never seen many of the places that are important in astronomy more than once or twice. It’s going to do it every couple nights over a wavelength regime that goes from infrared through all of visible into part of ultraviolet because it has six different filters that it uses to say, “I’m sampling this,” and when it comes back to the locations, like, “Last time I did the infrared and I’m gonna do the blue. Last time I was blue, now I’m gonna do the red.” And that means we’re gonna get full-color, full-spectrum of the universe, and go back each time. That means – this is the great, important part of this mission – that means if something changes…

Paul: We see it.

Ed: We get to see it.

Paul: It’s video.

Ed: We’re gonna make video of the universe. Instead of one picture, we’re gonna come back and we’re gonna be able to stack them and have…

Paul: And have video.

Ed: … images in time and have essentially video. Did it move? Is there a near-Earth asteroid, we know of a couple. See, what do we know? any others… we know about 20,000 near-Earth asteroids right now. It’s going to up that number to over 100,000. We know of about 3000 objects in the outer part of the solar system. We’re going to up that number to about 40,000. And that means all the little tiny objects and maybe even there’s speculation of a planet being out there, are going to be possible to observe. But more importantly, we’re going to know of a million supernovas, which are used to understand distance in the universe. We’re going to know about 17 billion stars, 20 billion new galaxies that we’ve never seen before. But also did it change in brightness? Did it get brighter or dimmer? Because certain objects in the universe change in brightness and we’ve never been able to watch them over and over and over and over. Did it move? We’re gonna be able to make observations of things that are incredibly dim, incredibly dim, and change with time. That’s a new eye on the universe, also. And both of those things have been going through approval, building, proposal lifetimes, people’s lives and missions…

Paul: Decades.

Ed: Decades of people’s lives and missions and, you know, administrators changing at the NSF, NASA or the Department of Energy…

Paul: Congress changing money…

Ed: …embargoes, Office of Management Budget, canceling this, all of that. And I can tell you stories about other telescope missions that have been canceled and brought back to life over the last 20 years, it’s amazing. But those two telescopes are going to revolutionize what we know about the universe. You know, it’s going to help us understand what is dark matter and dark energy? What are the beginning states of what is happening in the universe? What is in our local environment? And what is the Milky Way Galaxy’s environment around us? What are… I could go on and on and on about the science that is going to come out of that. But both of these are a case for saying science is important, but it’s also difficult. It takes passion, takes planning, it takes a whole host, a team of people in multiple locations and universities working in concert together on scales that people don’t appreciate. You know, it’s just a really interesting enterprise to get to this.

Paul: You know, we never hear that backstory.

Ed: No. I mean, there are travel agents. They’re business managers. They’re HR people. You know, each of these missions has buildings of people and multiple locations of buildings of people working in concert together and collaboration to make any of these things happen. Yeah.

Paul: Yeah. Same thing that keeps these big projects running, keeps small businesses running as well. I swear, this is something that I learned later in life. I had some businesses earlier before I founded CEDR. And I just didn’t understand what strategic planning and forward thinking and putting pen to paper… I just didn’t understand what role it would play to align things and get you somewhere.

Ed: And even the crazy stuff like changing your vision.

Paul: Oh, yeah.

Ed: You know, what do you do if the funding agency says, “Turns out, we aren’t going to be able, you’re gonna have to rescale.” You’re like, “Rescale?” Well, you can’t rescale and then you go to work. You know, and you have to re-scope and that means a new mission. That means a new vision. That means also, I mean, these things happen in business. And what if a new technology comes along in the time you’re planning it? And all of a sudden you’re like, “Wow, CCD cameras have really changed since we proposed this 20 years ago.”

Paul: Yeah. And there are many software companies that never launched because by the time they launched the software, it was completely obsolete. And so being able to change your, your plan and your vision, all that stuff is super important. Okay, Ed. We could go on and on. And I think I’ll probably have Ed back at some other time. But, Ed,  like, this is, you know, this is me and Ed having a beer in front of microphones.

Ed: Yeah, this is the back patio.

Paul: Yeah, this is the back patio right here.

[Ed laughs]

Ed: There is a brown dog missing.

[both laugh]

Paul: Yeah, Ginger the dog is missing right now. Okay, Ed. Thanks for taking the time. I know you’re busy. I know students are coming back now and you’re gonna be, you know, you’re gonna be professoring a lot more here soon. I appreciate it.

Ed: Yeah. I appreciate you guys asked me to come here. Thanks.

Paul: Well, I hope you enjoyed that episode of What the Heck Just Happened in HR? even though it wasn’t exactly, directly HR related. I just want to say that, you know, my friend Ed is, he’s had such a storied career. It includes all kinds of accolades and awards over the past decades at the University of Arizona. It’s no wonder he’s so well liked there and that his classes are so sought after. You know, I believe in this principle that you’re as good as the four people you spend the most time with and Ed is one of my four people. I hope he feels the same way. I also want to add to that last little part there about the four people: I feel very fortunate that I have an extension of that which is a lot of – I should be careful what I say [record scratches] – which is all of the people who I work with. I believe that you can extend that influence beyond four people when you create engagement with your team. I mean, you’re all working towards, you know, learning and solving problems and being curious together. I hope this helped you guys. I hope you enjoyed it. And thanks for listening to this episode of What the Hell Just Happened in Space?

Voice Over: Thanks for joining us for this week’s episode of What The Hell Just Happened? Do Paul a favor: share this with your network. If you have an HR issue or a question you’d like us to discuss on this show, send it to podcast@WTHjusthappened.com. For more HR advice and insights from Paul and his team of experts, you can also join the private Facebook group, HR Base Camp, or visit HRbasecamp.com. Make sure you tune in next week. And remember: better workplaces make better lives.

Sep 13, 2022

Friendly Disclaimer: This information is general in nature and is not intended to provide legal advice or replace individual guidance about a specific issue with an attorney or HR expert. The information on this page is general human resources guidance that is believed to be current as of the date of publication. Note that CEDR is not a law firm, and as the law is always changing, you should consult with a qualified attorney or HR expert who is familiar with all of the facts of your situation before making a decision about any human resources or employment law matter.
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