Last Sunday at 3pm, Professor Tom Ray slipped into his small office at his home in Malahide to witness a spectacle like no one had seen before.
I was like the CIA. I was warned to keep it under wraps. I even had to keep Ruth, my wife of 40, and all the relatives downstairs.”
You see, Tom was one of only 70 people in the world given a secret code by Nasa.
So the astrophysicist quietly snuck away, turned on his computer at his Dublin home – and used the password to join the others on his team who had helped build the James Webb Space Telescope.
Together these secret seventy wanted to look at the first pictures of the telescope.
This low-key event in his home office was the culmination of two decades of work: a front-row seat 13.8 billion years back in time.
“First the scientific part of my brain came into play,” says Ray. “I judged the pictures. Then I stepped back – and that’s when I got emotional. It welled up from the subconscious.”
Did he shed a tear?
“I have, yes. At some point the emotional part of your brain kicks in and you’re just like, ‘Wow.’”
Born in Dublin in 1956, Tom Ray was raised in the infamous Mount Pleasant Buildings in Ranelagh by his father and mother, a roofer and market stall trader.
As a boy, Tom would stare out his bedroom window at the sparkling Milky Way above him on bright nights.
“When I was five, my parents bought me a tiny telescope and I just sat there, fascinated. I remember seeing shooting stars once – that was in the middle of Dublin city and that would never happen now.
“Light pollution is such a problem these days. People cannot see this inspiration.
“If you dump a rubbish bag on the ground in a nice place like Wicklow you will rightly be fined. But the night sky, the Milky Way, is part of our beautiful landscape — and yet you can put bright lights anywhere in the place and nothing is said.”
When Ray was a student at Synge Street, a careers adviser came to see him and asked what job he wanted to do.
“I said ‘astronomy,’ and she said, ‘Yeah, but what real Work?’ And that was it – I was told it wasn’t a real job.”
Undeterred, he took books from his local library and listened to Patrick Moore on the BBC.
Then then Education Minister Donogh O’Malley introduced free secondary education and that was crucial.
Tom later became the first in his family to go to university – studying theoretical physics at Trinity College Dublin.
When he went to Trinity, he built his own telescopes, and the instruments he worked on got “bigger and bigger.” Eventually, he won a scholarship to pursue his PhD at the Jodrell Bank Observatory.
Today Ray is Director of the School of Cosmic Physics at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (DIAS), a position that led him to become part of the team that worked on the James Webb Space Telescope.
Six times the size of the Hubble Space Telescope and “bigger than a tennis court,” James Webb brought its own set of challenges, says Ray — most notably the $10 billion price tag.
But those who criticize the costs don’t get the big picture, he stresses.
When I was five years old, my parents bought me a tiny telescope
“For Europeans, a very, very cheap cup of coffee per person over the age of 20 pays off. That’s it. Not even a Starbucks. We’re talking French backyards. You can hardly get a coffee for €1.50 now.”
Politicians, he says, would “smack” people with numbers when they criticize space exploration – “but even at the height of the Apollo program, which went to the moon, it was no more than what Americans would have for chips in three months.” have spent.”
Do you think there is intelligent life out there?
“Considering what has happened in the last few years, I’m not even sure if there is intelligent life on Earth,” he jokes. “If so, I’m sure they would avoid us like the plague.”
He’s pointing to one of the distant planets featured in one of the images released last week. It’s called Wasp 96B.
“The spectrum showed a lot of water. It’s still too close to its sun, but it shows there’s a lot of water out there.
“Combine that with the fact that there were a large number of galaxies visible in that one image alone, and each of those galaxies has 100,000 million stars…the sheer size is inspiring.”
The truth is out there – but for Ray, the educational journey never ends.
“I don’t think we’re even remotely completing our understanding of the universe. We live at a point in history where we know enough to know there is much more to understand.”
Given planet Earth’s unique position in the “Goldilocks Zone,” where the conditions are just right for life, how concerned is it about the effects of climate change?
“I am a born optimist. I believe that we will solve this in the next few years. For no other reason than if fossil fuels become a “no go” because of the problems they cause, then money will flow to nuclear fusion reactors and alternative energies like wind. Then we will continue.
“I believe that fossil fuels will be replaced by fusion energy. But that could be the case in 20 years.”
As beautiful as James Webb’s paintings are, what do they mean to the average person?
“In Victorian times, Michael Faraday [the ground-breaking scientist of electromagnetism] gave a lecture in London, which was attended by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, William Gladstone.
“Gladstone listened to everything – and at the end he said, ‘This is all very interesting, Dr. Faraday, but what’s the use of all this?’ And Faraday replied: ‘One day, sir, you will tax it.’
“And he was right. We call it VAT on electricity. So we just don’t know where these findings will lead.”
In the meantime, he says, last but not least, James Webb could “inspire” us.
“It means people are less Luddites, more positive and more interested in what’s going on around them. So considering the price of a cup of coffee, it doesn’t even cost peanuts to change people’s attitudes.”
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/the-milky-way-kid-meet-the-irish-genius-who-helped-build-the-james-webb-space-telescope-41845454.html The Milky Way Child: Meet the Irish genius who helped build the James Webb Space Telescope