Astrophysicist Fontana: “A miracle guides us in our pursuit of the stars”

For Aristotle, knowledge arises from wonder, without which there is no inquiry. This principle we learned in school seems more true today thanks to the amazing images of galaxies billions of light years away, sent by the James Webb Space Telescope, that amaze the common man and the scientist. But what amazes astrophysicists is above all a scenario that was unimaginable even a year and a half ago. Research that in the future could lead to a rethinking of the model of understanding the universe. It is precisely to discuss the first exciting discoveries of the James Webb Space Telescope that from today to Thursday around sixty researchers from all over the world gathered at the Casina Pio IV for a workshop organized by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Among them is Professor Adriano Fontana, director of research at the National Institute of Astrophysics, Italy’s main public research body for astronomy. INAF is among the main users of James Webb, although the Italian scientific community is not one of the largest in the world, which confirms the high level of our research.

Professor Fontano, what is the climate in the scientific community for data and images coming from the space telescope?

There is a lot of buzz, there are many ideas that will need to be tested, and that is why the congress organized by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences is a very important opportunity for discussion. The Vatican has a long history of supporting astronomy, including through the Vatican Observatory with observatories at Castel Gandolfo and Mount Graham in Arizona. La Specola had and has distinguished scientists and internationally respected colleagues. The meetings are always at a high level and there are interventions in many dimensions of human life that are touched by scientific discovery. At this year’s workshop, for example, we are also talking about the dissemination of discoveries, information, philosophical aspects and man’s place in the universe. It is a very appropriate approach because for the entire scientific community it is a historical moment of great cultural revival.

The emotional impact of James Webb’s spectacular images is evident, but what was the biggest surprise for astrophysicists?

The magic of astronomy is in being able to observe the beauty of nature, and the James Webb is an instrument that performs 100 to 1000 times better than previous telescopes. But for us researchers with a trained eye, the real surprise was finding the unexpected. Let me explain: to observe galaxies this far from Earth is to see them as they were billions of years ago, and on this journey back in time, thanks to previous telescopes, we stopped about a billion years after the big bang. The observations showed us how normal it was to expect that as we got closer to the Big Bang, galaxies got smaller and rarer. We thought that Webb, which will take us much closer to the dawn of the universe, will find very few and instead has already photographed large and advanced galaxies, beyond all theoretical predictions. So galaxy formation happened faster and closer to the Big Bang than we thought, but that remains to be studied and explained.

Where could it lead?

Scientists are always cautious and a hypothesis needs time to be analyzed and become an accepted theory. Right now, there is a big effort to collect new data and put forward hypotheses. There are hypotheses that refer to mechanisms that we can define as traditional but also more innovative explanations. For example, those that assume the existence in the primordial Universe of forces that no longer exist, but that helped build the first galaxies, or mechanisms that we do not know that created black holes at the beginning of time, around which matter condensed and the first stars were born. We know that the universe has a history, that it was born from an extremely dense phase, which we call the Big Bang, during which it expanded and stars and galaxies formed during the expansion. The problem is what are the basic laws of physics that explain what we see thanks to Webb. Are the four fundamental forces plus dark matter and dark energy that we have considered so far sufficient? Or are there other fundamental forces of nature that may have contributed to the history of the universe?

How Italy participates to search?

Italy participated in the creation of the telescope through ESA, which financed it together with NASA and the Canadian Space Agency. Just using it means being part of the best research groups in the world. The selection is very high, but at least a dozen Italian-led projects win in each tender. Research in astrophysics is one of the excellences of our country and the national research institute helps. This is a relatively rare fact in a world scientific organization, but it is one of Italy’s strengths because it allows us to systematize many skills and collaborations. INAF cooperates with many research institutes, with the Italian Space Agency, with the European one, with universities. All the indicators that quantify the scientific impact show that INAF is at the top of the world and it should not be forgotten that Italy also has a great industrial tradition in space, which allows us to develop our instruments and be competitive. We were among the first nations to put a satellite into orbit.

Behind the development of Webb is a huge technological development. As it has happened many times in the past, will it also have an impact on our daily lives?

I can’t imagine it today, but I am convinced that observing galaxies billions of light years away from us corresponds to one of the most noble human needs, to understand where we are and what surrounds us. The very fact that billions of people have been fascinated by Webb’s images proves his importance, bringing young people closer to science and being part of everything that makes our world a better place.

The protagonists of the Webb telescope data in the Vatican

From March 27 to 29, scientists from all over the world will gather at the Casina Pio IV for a workshop organized by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, dedicated to the first exciting discoveries of the James Webb Space Telescope. “Two years after launch, Jwst data is already changing the way we look at the universe. We will also reflect on the impact of these new findings on society and the opportunities for public engagement through the fascinating images of this powerful observatory,” comments Ewine van Dishoeck, Professor of Astrophysics at Leiden University and Pas Academic, who is organizing the event. A public conference on “The Invisible Universe Revealed by the James Webb Space Telescope” is also planned for Thursday, February 29 at 6 pm at the Department of Physics of La Sapienza University of Rome.


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