Barry McNamara  |   Published April 06, 2015

‘The infinite bang’

Nobel laureate Mather explains the universe during MC’s Whiteman Lecture
A 1,000-word story cannot do justice to the topic “The History of the Universe:  How We Got Here and Where We Are Going,” which was the title of Nobel Prize-winning astrophysicist John Mather’s 2015 Wendell Whiteman Memorial Lecture earlier this week at Monmouth College.
 
Mather won the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics for his work that experimentally confirmed the Big Bang Theory of the formation of the universe.
 
“It’s actually ‘the Infinite Bang,’” Mather told a large Dahl Chapel audience, which included many of the college’s science majors. “The universe is expanding infinitely into its infinite self. … There’s no ‘center of the universe’ – we’ve looked. It happened everywhere at the same time.”
 
For those who have difficulty grasping such concepts as the Doppler shift and the “smooth curve blackbody spectrum,” easier takeaways from the NASA scientist’s speech came in his responses to the final two audience questions.
 
Asked to give “practical advice” to future scientists in the room, Mather replied with a list of topics the world will need to address in the century ahead – including energy, pollution and medicine – that “will demand science.”
 
“Don’t be discouraged by the fact that you don’t have all the answers,” he added. “There’s a perception that scientists have all the answers. We might want you to think that. But the reality is that what we know is like one of those New York Times crossword puzzles, and what we don’t know is a crossword puzzle going to infinity in every direction. Keep working on it. Have courage, and know it’s important.”
 
Mather also had some practical advice for those who needed a reassuring word after hearing astronomers’ doomsday forecast – granted, a forecast billions of years in the future – for Earth and the Solar System. That advice came in his reply to the question, “What is our purpose for being here?”
 
After joking that some would say it’s to provide carbon dioxide for plants, Mather concluded his answer by saying, “Look inside your heart. That may be where your purpose comes from. You get to choose.”
 
As for how we got here and where we’re going, Mather is a big believer in the power of a man-made instrument to provide the answer – the telescope. Mather is the senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope which, after receiving funding from Congress four years ago, will look even farther back in time than the Hubble Space Telescope. After its launch in 2018, the Webb Telescope will peer inside the dusty cocoons where stars and planets are being born. It will also be capable of examining Earth-like planets around other stars.
 
“We hope to see how stars are made,” said Mather. “We have already seen three or four thousand cases of planets that move in front of a star. How much like Earth are those planets? We don’t know yet, but NASA is working on this.”
 
It is through looking back in time that Mather said that the universe is now believed to be approximately 13.8 billion years old, while the Solar System is much younger at 4.567 billion years.
 
Within that system is Earth, which Mather speculated might be a very unique place.
 
“Maybe this is special,” he said. “We might be a very rare occurrence in the universe. Was (the creation of life) a miracle? Whatever it was, it happened quickly here.”
 
Part of the “rare occurrence” was a Mars-sized object crashing into Earth about 90 million years after it was formed. The debris from the collision formed the moon.
 
One of Mather’s slides read, “Your chin is made of exploded stars,” which gave him the opening for this line: “When you’re at the mirror in the morning, you’re not only practicing cosmetology, but cosmology.”
 
Mather said another collision is coming, when the Andromeda Galaxy runs into our own Milky Way.
 
“It’s going to happen in a few billion years,” he said, adding drily, “It’ll be pretty exciting.”
 
It would be less exciting for any human inhabitants of Earth, as the sun will enlarge around that time, becoming a red giant, approximately the size of Earth’s orbit. Another 2.6 billion years after that, the sun’s size will go in the opposite direction, becoming a white dwarf. In other words, lights out.
 
While no one in Dahl Chapel needed to be concerned with those developments – which Mather says astronomers can see play out light years and galaxies away – the planet will face some issues soon, perhaps by the year 2200, he speculated.
 
“We are going to run out of coal and oil, it will be very warm, the oceans will turn acidic and sea levels will be higher,” he said, before noting that man – led by science – will adapt. Part of that adaptation, he said, could involve leaving Earth.
 
“I think we will get to Mars,” predicted Mather, who was drawn to campus partly because of his friendship with Karin Loya, a 1962 Monmouth graduate and accomplished scientist in her own right, who worked with Mather at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “I don’t think we’ll get invaded by other worlds, or that we’ll get to other stars. But there’s still room for imagination.”
 
Called “one of the highlights of the academic year at Monmouth” by MC president Clarence Wyatt in his introduction, the Whiteman Lecture is named in memory of Wendell Whiteman, an alumnus of the college and long-time executive of Security Savings Bank in Monmouth. Created in 1992 to bring leaders of business and industry to the MC campus, the series has now featured two Nobel Prize winners. Robert Solow, who won the 1987 Nobel Prize in economic sciences, spoke in 1998.
 
Mather’s work with NASA increasingly crosses into the business sector, particularly regarding funding. The growing interdependence between science and business was the inspiration for the development of the college’s new Center for Science and Business.
 
Regarding funding, Mather told the story of how Webb, who was an administrator, not a scientist, made an impromptu decision while traveling to present a budget to President John F. Kennedy for funding to go to the moon.
 
“He was in a cab, and he decided to double the money he had been advised to ask for,” said Mather. “He was betting the future of our country on being right. It was brilliant.” 
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