Experts Discuss their Research and the First Captures from the James Webb Space Telescope

From the left: Michael Troxel and Dan Scolnic

By now, people all over the world have been awed by the first images captured by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Cosmologists Dan Scolnic and Michael Troxel, who are both assistant professors of physics at Duke University, explain the significance of this discovery and its implications for the future of studying the universe.

What first influenced you to begin a career studying cosmology?

Dan Scolnic: I was struck in the beginning by the bigness of it. That we can be stuck on one small planet, at one brief moment in time, and understand things that are billions of years old and light-years away, was a huge pull.

What’s something you wished lawmakers (or the general public) better understood about the work you do?

First, that we are extremely appreciative that we have agencies like NASA, the National Science Foundation (NSF), Department of Energy (DOE), that fund large projects doing cutting-edge research. And second, these types of projects take a lot of time, even decades, to pull off. Science, from the outside, can seem really quiet and then super exciting, like with the launch of JWST. But to get to that point, there are thousands of people working for many years, and this whole thing only works when resources are committed both to the projects, but also to the scientists who will work on and use them, on the type of timescales that this incredible new science takes.

Why are these new JWST images significant and what do they mean for our understanding of the universe?

What we’ve learned from these first images is that JWST is even better than we hoped, which is amazing. What will we learn? We know some things, but we also know that we will be surprised. We will learn about the atmospheres on potentially habitable planets, we will learn about the expansion history of the universe. But also, every time astronomers have created a new telescope that surpasses previous ones by this much, we learn many new facets of the universe. We weren’t sure something like dark energy existed before we launched the Hubble Space Telescope, for example.

JWST is expected to be the premier observatory for the next decade. What is next for NASA, and how are you/Duke playing a role in the next-generation of space observation?

We are working on designing the next flagship mission after JWST, which is called the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope. While JWST is amazing at looking at a tiny part of the sky, Roman will be more like its predecessor, the Hubble Space Telescope, except with 100x the field-of-view. This will allow Roman to find thousands of supernovae to map the expansion of the Universe and measure the bending of light from hundreds of millions of galaxies to map dark matter and the large-scale structure of the Universe to map dark matter and the large-scale structure of the Universe. 

Troxel and Scolnic in front of US Capitol during a March 2020 visit to discuss the Roman Space Telescope Program with congressional offices.

How has the federal government played a key role in supporting your research and advancing the field?

The type of projects we work on cost billions of dollars. They are impossible to do without federal funding. Every ten years, the astronomy community gathers to decide on its priorities for the next decades, and the government really listens to the outcome of this process and puts their weight behind it. That’s incredible. Our group at Duke is committed to these large, long-term projects built by the DOE (the Dark Energy Survey and the Rubin Observatory Legacy Survey of Space and Time), and NASA (the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope).

By Lizzie Devitt, Posted 7/21/22