The 2012 Friedman Lecture

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The Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics hosts a series of presentations funded by the Ronald M. and Susan J. Friedman Outreach Fund in Astronomy. Free to the public, they are the Friedman lectures. Information on all lectures is available here.

This year, Heidi Hammel, Executive Vice President of AURA, Inc. (The Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy), presented the "James Webb Space Telescope: NASA's Next Great Observatory." Also known as JWST, the telescope featured below will accept the torch of observational astronomy from the Hubble Space Telescope.

The James Webb Space Telescope, Artist's Impression

Source - NASA

Before the lecture, a group of us had the chance to dine with Dr. Hammel for the monthly women in astronomy meeting. Thursday, September 13, 2012, left me with both an introduction to an amazing upcoming instrument that will further advance astronomy as well as insight to sharing and communicating science.

During dinner, Dr. Hammel told us that she almost went to Penn State for her undergraduate studies. She had a dorm room and roommates assigned to her, but a last minute decision took her to MIT. A general astronomy course she took at MIT started her interest in the field. Currently, she is one of the six Interdisciplinary Scientists for developing the JWST. She is an expert on Neptune and led the Hubble team that studied the impact of Comet Shoemaker Levy-9 with Jupiter in 1994. Because she often presents science to congress, she sees herself as a translator, helping those unfamiliar with science comprehend it. At one point, I wanted to be a translator, so I really appreciated when she associated the role with communicating science. Ultimately, almost everyone, regardless of occupation, will want to share their work and passion.

Dr. Hammel had us describe, one by one around the table, what each of our research is on. We had to do it in around three sentences and in terms that the general public will understand. This activity turned out more challenging than expected. Someone mentioned that there are those who are shocked to learn that there are planets around stars besides the sun, but then I recalled that I did not know about exoplanets until senior year of high school. It's always good to keep an open mind when hearing about new things or discussing new things.

Eventually, someone asked about how to deal with those that need convincing of the value of space exploration. There are those who think money should be spent on other things. As a response, Dr. Hammel quoted a video:  

I personally believe that there are two ways to make the world a better place. You can decrease the suck, and you can increase the awesome.

We could back up the importance of supporting science with all sorts of evidence and facts, yet that one quote, in my opinion, sums it up quite well. Increasing the awesome is taking the glass-is-half-full approach.  

Dr. Hammel mentioned that we will see the video during the presentation. Sure enough, she showed it later. I also include this video for its soccer analogy as a shout-out to my loyal reader, Rowena.

For some quick facts about JWST, try this interactive feature that describes the size of the telescope, the wavelength at which it will observe, its orbit, and how far back in time it is capable of seeing.

Below is a comparison of part of the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field image (top left) with a simulated one taken with JWST (bottom left). This image is the deepest of the universe ever taken, meaning that the recorded light originated from between 400 and 800 million years after the big bang. Dr. Hammel showed us that JWST will take much sharper images.

 28 jwst vs hubble.jpg

Source - STScI (Space Telescope Science Institute)

The James Webb Space Telescope is scheduled to launch in 2018. After staying up to watch the Curiosity rover's landing this summer and the live history-in-the-making moments, I know I'll be tuning in.

If you are interested, visit this link to watch Dr. Hammel's presentation.  

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1 Comment

Im honored to be mentioned in your blog post. I love that decreasing suck/ increasing awesome idea, it could be very applicable to other parts of your life. And to be honest those diagrams look super cool.

While we're discussing soccer, I'd jus like to point out that there is a team which operates on a 'decreasing the suck' method- Spain. Only they call it tiki-taka and it's touted as being extremely sophisticated. I'd just like to declare publicly that it's boring as hell watching them and I have no idea why people want to watch a team that doesn't even run. They just kick the ball.

My recommendation would be to go for an 'increasing the awesome' type team. Like Portugal.

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