In the fall of this year, if all goes well and the stars line up, the 8.8 Billion dollar James Webb Space Telescope (JWT) will be launched into space with a mission to bring us closer to the secrets and mysteries of the Universe that we have even been before. Named for James E. Webb who ran NASA from 1961 and 1968 and believed in striking a balance between human space fight and science, the JWT is 3 times the size of the Hubble Telescope and 100 times more powerful. And we all have been captivated by the stunning images of distant nebulae and galaxies that Hubble has returned. Who can forget the iconic “Hubble Deep Field View” which showcases a series of cosmic ‘smudges” on a tapestry of stars in a small region of the Ursa Major constellation? Each one of those smudges is a faint and distant galaxy —10 thousand in all in just that one area of one constellation. This is not the most sophisticated of language but that image still blows my mind every time I look at it and I look at it often. Perspective..
What will a telescope 100 times more powerful than the scope that brought us that powerful image reveal to us? I can’t imagine that there is a person alive today who doesn’t, at some level want an answer to the most fundamental existential question of human history : “Are we alone? “ We already know that there are likely billions of other planets orbiting other stars ( exoplanets ) in our galaxy alone: entire solar systems consisting of strange and wondrous worlds that we couldn’t have previously imagined as well as thousands of “earth like” rocky planets that could conceivably host life –at least life as we know it. To date, over 4000 exoplanets have been discovered and confirmed using the transit method (detecting and measuring the dip in the star’s light as the planet crosses in front of it. ) I can’t help but get excited to think of the possibilities of actually “seeing” images of these distant planets and where that will take the dedicated team of scientists and researchers who are studying them.
Curiosity has driven human exploration since the beginning of time but when it comes to the burgeoning field of exoplanets, are female scientists more curious than male scientists? In a recent Washington Post article, “ Upcoming launch of $8.8 billion telescope places women’s leading roles in centre focus.“ , we learn that since the first exoplanet was discovered in 1995, exoplanet study, considered somewhat fringe by the old guard of astronomy ( mostly older white men) , attracted not only younger but primarily female astronomers. The article features interviews with astrophysicist, MIT planetary expert and one of the world’s leading exoplanet researchers , Sara Seager, as well as the iconic astronomer and former SETI ( Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence ) Director, Jill Tartar. Although I have always admired Jill Tartar ( famously portrayed by Jody Foster in the movie Contact ) , I have never met her. I have, however, had the privilege and pleasure of meeting Sara Seager and actually hosted her in my home in 2013 when she was the Keynote Speaker at the General Assembly of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada which was hosted by my humble Northwestern Ontario city. The Thunder Bay chapter of the RASC is a small centre to take on a national assembly so suffice to say that we were all volunteering our faces off 🙂 I not only billeted Sara but drove her around to events and to her presentation at our local University. I knew of her work and as anyone who reads this blog knows , the ongoing discovery of exoplanets and the potential for finding life elsewhere is my primary passion and what drives this blog. And Sara is a rock star in this field and in a scenario that I couldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams , we were having a late night tea in my kitchen –discussing this very topic. Although I was initially intimidated by her obvious brilliance and laser sharp focus , we bonded not only over our shared interest in this topic ( although from different perspectives ) I think that we found a common bond over being widows. Our husbands died the same year, actually , both stolen away by cancer. Of course, I am much older and because Sara isn’t a lot older than my older daughter, I felt a bit of motherly protectiveness. And even though this is all about the science –there is a bit of synchronicity here. I was chauffeuring Sara around and making sure she was taken care of for most of the time she was here but had to leave her “on her own” for lunch as I had another event I had to be at. I often joke that she is probably glad that she got rid of me that day as she was invited to join one of the delegates from the Toronto Centre. They are married now. Some things are just meant to be.
Sorry for the slight diversion and back to the article. The piece references a documentary called ” The Search for Planet B” which apparently premiered the same week as the article ( March 19th ) . The film not only showcases the JWT scope but also introduces the female astronomers who are dominating and championing the field of exoplanets , once considered too fringe and risky. Astronomers like Sara and Dr. Tartar.
Sara is quoted in the article as recalling being at an IAU ( International Astronomical Union) conference at a session that was dominated by “all men with white hair” but when she walked to another part of the conference about the new field of exoplanets – that group was predominantly young people-mostly women.
“I feel like then women could get a foothold and then women like me, and others in the film, were able to move up. And be a role model to others”, she is quoted as saying.
The sheer observing power of a telescope as large and as powerful as the JWT will revolutionize our understanding of the cosmos and Sara has been a passionate advocate and educator in the search for life beyond earth and answering the biggest of the Big Questions- ” are we alone?”
Dr Tartar seems less interested in that question : ” We are not doing religion here , we’re doing science” she says in the article . Both she and Sara anticipate that some of the most exciting and profound questions that JWT could answer may come, not from the questions that we keep asking, but from the information that JWT gives that no-one anticipates.
“The history of astronomical instrumentation is when you build an instrument to look at the Cosmos in a different way, the most exciting things the instrument does is discover something you never expected ” she says in the article. Perhaps things that we cannot yet even imagine. As she says, this may not be religion but that is certainly something to ponder.
As the mother of 2 daughters and 2 granddaughters, I come from a very “girl powered ” family and these two women are indeed role models and an inspiration. Kudos to them for taking the lead in searching beyond our terrestrial borders to find —what? — we don’t know yet but when we do , it will certainly be one of the most important discoveries in human history.
And if it is life elsewhere or another earth—I’m going to indulge myself here–I hope that Sara finds it. And if not her–my 10 year old granddaughter who has confided to me that she would like to discover “Planet X”. You go ladies 🙂
NOTE: I haven’t been able to find a place that I can view “The Search for Planet B” on my limited technology but I promise to do that and tell you more about in my next post. And I will try to get that done in this decade 🙂