The Day the Universe Changed: A Conversation with Scott Engle, PhD

The Day the Universe Changed: A Conversation with Scott Engle, PhD

December 22, 20213 min read

In the opening to last week’s 60 Minutes episode, host Scott Pelley remarks, “this December 22 may become known as the day the universe changed.” December 22, today, is the day in which Nasa launches the James Webb Space Telescope, the largest and most expensive instrument ever flown. 100 times more powerful than Hubble, Webb can see back in time to the formation of the earliest galaxies in the universe in order to study how our solar systems have evolved.

Villanova University’s Scott Engle, PhD, is an expert in all things astrophysics and planetary science. He sat down to answer a few of our burning questions:

Q. The intro to the segment pegged this as ‘the day the universe changed.’ Do you think that’s overstated or is it accurate?

A. Well, it’s mostly accurate. They naturally want to keep it concise, so it sounds a bit better, but it’s definitely going to be the day when our understanding of the universe started to change. Webb’s capabilities and the quality of data it promises to deliver are going to at least refine, but in the end likely redefine, several theories about the universe.

Q. Relatedly, from your knowledge, what do you think the impacts this type of project will have?

A. The satellite has its primary science goals, but I’m sure a project this large will wind up impacting all areas of astronomy. Theories and models are continually improving and pairing any of them up with some of the best data possible is always going to produce exciting results and advances in the field.

Q. Had you or anyone else in the department (that you’re aware of) applied for any research as a part of this project?

A. I don’t believe that anyone in the department has applied to Webb yet, but I’m looking to during one of their future calls for proposals.

Q. As an astrophysicist is this something that can be a ‘superfan’ moment? Is this comparable to any other experiences/projects in your career?

A. There’s simply a lot of anticipation and nerves. They’ve done rigorous testing, so it should all go to plan, but at this point I’m just waiting to see that everything has gone well and observations are underway.

After that, it’s incredible every time a new satellite is launched and you see the great data it can produce and the new studies that data is allowing astronomers to carry out. It makes me think of when the Kepler satellite first started producing data. It sounds simple enough – Kepler simply stared at thousands of stars and repeatedly measured how bright they were – but the data it produced was a huge leap forward. The number of stars it was observing, the continuous measurements, and their excellent precision, all combined to produce a dataset that I was amazed to see.

Q. What else are you looking forward to about this initiative? Certainly, seems like it was a long time coming.

A. One area of results I’m personally looking forward to are the exoplanet studies, and what Webb can tell us about the atmospheres of planets orbiting other stars.

To speak with Kelly, email

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