James Webb Space Telescope chief scientist Jane Rigby receives America’s highest civilian award

When I sat down with Jane Rigby last month, in a conference room on the top floor of the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis—a quiet respite from the horde of families sifting through cosmic exhibits and dinosaur bones below—her eyes were warm and measured. She also carried a menagerie of gravitationally lensed galaxies.

Her T-shirt was decorated with illuminated spheres distorted by massive structures in their surroundings, stretched and flattened like taffy thanks to gravitational tides that twisted the fabric of spacetime as if it were a pliable sea of ​​four-dimensional rubber. This image was actually one of the first photographs taken by the James Webb Space Telescope, a billion-dollar, gold-plated instrument located millions of miles from Earth. Soil – a machine for which Rigby is the chief scientist, and for which she just earned the White House’s 2024 Presidential Medal of Freedom.

It’s scenes like this quarry of manipulated galaxies that Rigby and the rest of the JWST team manage to bring to Earth, both metaphorically and literally speaking. Images captured with this telescope have enabled scientists to deepen their nuanced research, encouraged journalists to endlessly muse in their stories, and even inspired designers to create thought-provoking pieces that summarize concepts once limited to fiction . They have changed the way we see the universe, and how we mentally place ourselves in it.

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“I’m working on a telescope that does the impossible,” Rigby said after her acceptance of the medal. “We’re measuring planets and the distant universe in ways that were simply impossible.”

Since the exquisite launch sequence to space early on Christmas morning in 2021, the James Webb Space Telescope has been a vision. Using a toolkit of highly sensitive infrared spectrometers and cameras, it is able to detect wavelengths of light from deep space that have been elongated over time like stretched rubber bands.

They are wavelengths that appear shifted from our perspective, because they have gone from the blue end of the electromagnetic spectrum to the red end. It’s as if they’ve been pulled, as the universe has been continuously expanding over the past billions of years, and in fact continues to do so. Ultimately, such shifting wavelengths enter the infrared water, invisible not only to the human eye, but to almost all human telescopes. Importantly, however, these signals represent objects that have physically shifted away from us, along with their color classification. Red-shifted wavelengths contain data about mysterious pieces the universe which existed when the cosmos was a smaller kind of infinity than the cosmos we live in now. And the James Webb Space Telescope can make sense of that data.

It can translate this into portraits with enough power to revolutionize science and evoke memories of the wonderful world we live in. This allowed scientists to form a picture of one record breaking old galaxy named after the discoverer’s daughter, Maisie, access new crevices of a coffee-colored miststudy an exoplanetary system that’s very similar to ours and revive debates one about how fast our universe is truly expanding outward.

“We go through our lives all the time in the midst of amazement, but we are not aware of it,” Rigby told Space.com. “We are constantly torn between the profound and the mundane.”

Rigby remembers the time she saw the very first deep space images from the telescope. “I was one of the first people to see this data,” she said. “We were all in a room, it looked like a conference room like this, and we all had to look at it at the same time.”

Ultimately, however, the team decided they needed to go even deeper into the cosmos with the JWST’s infrared powers. They wanted to go even further back in time. So they have initiated a number of procedures. That happened overnight. The next day, Rigby’s parents were visiting, and she was busy with things like making sure her guest room was ready to go.

“I have to make breakfast and there have to be waffles,” she said of her thought process. “Then I went upstairs, still in my pajamas, and downloaded… and there it is.”

Gravitational lensed galaxies, spirals and ellipticals are seen against the backdrop of space.

Gravitational lensed galaxies, spirals and ellipticals are seen against the backdrop of space.

What she saw was not only beautiful, but for a while it felt as if the data was meant specifically for her eyes. “That was an amazing feeling,” Rigby explained. “That, ‘oh my gosh, we built this thing and it works. It works really well.'” But then it was time to share the excitement.

“As chief scientist, one of the things that has brought me the most joy is watching that joy in the scientific community,” she said. “I want to show everyone that it is so beautiful, and also that: ‘Yes! We pointed to the right object!'”

Throughout her careerRigby has worked with quite a few incredibly impactful telescopes, including the Hubble Space TelescopeSpitzer, the Keck telescopes and the Chandra X-ray Telescope, the latter of which actually makes headlines in the astronomy community at this time due to the current state of budgetary uncertainty. She has published more than 150 articles about her discoveries, holds both a master’s and doctoral degree in astronomy from the University of Arizona, and is passionate about social activism. And now she has earned the White House’s highest civilian honor, joining eighteen other accomplished recipients.

“The Presidential Medal of Freedom,” said the White House website“is the nation’s highest civilian honor, presented to individuals who have made exemplary contributions to the prosperity, values ​​or security of the United States, world peace, or other significant civic, public or private endeavors.”

I suppose it can also be argued that the impact of the James Webb Space Telescope transcends the seemingly infinite differences that plague humans. This telescope can be seen as a symbol of peace in its own way.

a woman wearing a nasa pin smiles with red lipstick while an old man in a suit hangs a medal necklace around her neck behind her.a woman wearing a nasa pin smiles with red lipstick while an old man in a suit hangs a medal necklace around her neck behind her.

a woman wearing a nasa pin smiles with red lipstick while an old man in a suit hangs a medal necklace around her neck behind her.

In her post-award speech, Rigby also drew attention to previous Medal of Freedom award winners, including astronaut Sally Ritpolitician Harvey Milk, and social activist Bayard Rustin, one of whom was the first American woman in space and two of whom were proud advocates of issues such as gay rights, civil rights and nonviolence: “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for them .”

And remarkably, her enthusiasm for science extends beyond her prestigious academic achievement. A large part of her scientific contribution is working diligently to expand the scientific discussion so that everyone can voice their opinions, or at least marvel for a moment or two at the beauty of space. In fact, just before our interview, she had completed a long presentation at the museum. It was for a collection of dreamy-eyed children who sat like pretzels on the floor asking impressive questions about stellar death mechanisms and dark matter distribution.

Science is not just about numbers, she emphasizes, although, as a self-described empiricist first and foremost, she does admit that she loves numbers. It is also about the unchanging reality that, by the very nature of our humanity, we cannot escape our humanity.

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‘All the time we’re going back and forth between depths of about millions of solar masses black holes from when the universe was just a few hundred million years old,” she said. ‘And then we’re talking about personality conflicts; about how these two people can’t agree on who gets to be the first author.”

“We can get along better, we can be more interested, we can have better practices,” she said. “But science is a human effort by people.”

Of course, behind the JWST’s success is an astonishing group of people: engineers, scientists, press officers, program coordinators, factory workers and many more encountered along the path of the supply chain. “I’m a very collaborative scientist,” Rigby said. “My best time is when I’m on my science collaboration every Tuesday, and we’re on Zoom and we have some data. It’s like unboxing on YouTube.

“It’s like a vacation.”

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