Speaking of Hubble...

Archive: Mario Livio

A New Beginning

April 24, 2012 by Mario Livio

Blog: A Curious MindAfter a few years of writing postings for the “Speaking of Hubble” blog (and greatly enjoying it), I will be moving to a new platform in the blogosphere.

My new blog, “A Curious Mind,” is intended — you guessed it — for curious minds. I will be writing mostly about science, occasionally about art, sometimes about the connections between the two. These will be somewhat longer pieces, discussing topics at the forefront of science, and at the intersection of science and general culture. I will augment the blog postings with Tweets – you can follow me on Twitter, at Mario_Livio.

As you can imagine, as an astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, Hubble and the upcoming James Webb Space Telescope continue to be front and center in my mind. Consequently, these topics will, no doubt, feature frequently in my postings and Tweets.

I am looking forward to this new literary adventure, and I can only hope that the readers will share my passion for science and art.

At the Top

February 28, 2012 by Mario Livio
Hubble featured at the Carnival Parade 2012 in Sao Paulo, Brazil IMAGE CREDIT: Monica M. Marcon-Uchida

Hubble featured at the Carnival Parade 2012, Sao Paulo, Brazil IMAGE CREDIT: Monica-Midori Marcon-Uchida Sguazzard

A few events in the last few weeks should have convinced even the most extreme skeptics that the Hubble Space Telescope and the amazing images it has produced have become permanent icons within human culture.

First, National Geographic magazine published a special issue, entitled: “100 Scientific Discoveries that Changed the World.” Among those world-changing discoveries, at #78, you can find the Hubble Space Telescope!

The telescope is even mentioned in relation to two other earth-shaking topics: the inflationary universe, and extrasolar planets.

OK, you may think, clearly the telescope represents an impressive scientific achievement, but what about other arenas of “human culture”?

Well, Artforum is one of the leading international magazines on art. In its February 2012 issue, it features an article entitled “Top Ten” by sculptor and artist Maya Lin. Lin is perhaps best-known for designing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC. In 1994, she was also the subject of the Academy Award-winning documentary “Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision.”

In her article, Lin lists the Top Ten subjects that she finds inspiring. Believe it or not, at #7, is “Images from the Hubble Space Telescope!”

Lin writes: “When I first saw NASA’s renderings of distant nebulae, I realized that these weren’t just reference photographs but, rather, works of art—and undoubtedly among the most powerful that our generation has produced.”

Finally, there is the realm of popular culture. There, HST was recently featured on a carnival float in Sao Paulo, Brazil!

I rest my case.


November 30, 2011 by Mario Livio
Hubble astronomers watch the first impact of comet P/Shoemaker-Levy 9 with Jupiter.

Hubble astronomers watch the first impact of comet P/Shoemaker-Levy 9.

A 1632 oil painting by Rembrandt, "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp"

A 1632 oil painting by Rembrandt, "The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp"

Novelist Edith Wharton wrote once: “In spite of illness, in spite even of the archenemy sorrow, one CAN remain alive long past the usual date of disintegration if one is unafraid of change, insatiable in intellectual curiosity, interested in big things, and happy in small ways.”

Indeed, human curiosity about the cosmos and about “what does it all mean?” has always exceeded that needed for mere survival or improvement in the quality of life. Curiosity is the ultimate driver of scientific exploration, and the key to creativity.

In July of 1994, the fragments of a comet – comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 – collided with Jupiter. Almost every telescope on the face of the Earth and in orbit (including Hubble), was directed to observe the collision. At the Space Telescope Science Institute, more than a dozen astronomers gathered around a computer screen, eager to watch the impact of the first fragment. Everybody was curious to observe directly, for the first time, the results of an extraterrestrial collision between solar system objects.

A photographer took a picture of the event. What is most remarkable about this photograph is that it captures the essence of curiosity. As soon as I saw it, the photo reminded me of a painting by Rembrandt, known as “The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp.” In that painting too, Rembrandt’s focus is not on the corpse being dissected, but rather on the curiosity expressed by the attending doctors.

As Edith Wharton so insightfully observed, as long as we keep our intellectual curiosity alive, there is a clear path forward.

Astronomy Is Good!

September 19, 2011 by Mario Livio

blog_2011_09_19Sometimes people ask me: What is astronomy good for?

In response, I usually tell them an anecdote about one of the greatest scientists of all time, Sir Michael Faraday, whose pioneering studies in electricity and magnetism opened the door for modern technology.

William Gladstone, chancellor of the exchequer (the equivalent of minister of finance), visited Farady in his lab and asked him about the practical worth of electricity. “Why, sir,” Faraday responded, “there is every probability that you will soon be able to tax it!”

When one deals with basic research, as is the case with astronomy, it is virtually impossible to know in advance to which practical applications that research might lead. The fact is that the very first “Laws of Nature” (e.g. the laws of motion and of gravity) were formulated by Newton on the basis of astronomical observations. Those are the laws on which our technology is ultimately based.

In addition, astronomical phenomena may be used directly for some fundamental measurements. We know today, for instance, that pulsars — rapidly rotating neutron stars — are the most accurate clocks in nature. One day in the not-too-distant future, they may replace atomic clocks in providing our standard of time.

Einstein’s theory of General Relativity, which was both motivated and tested by astronomical observations, is already crucial for the operation of GPS systems. Observations of the Sun provide vital information about potential disruptions in communications and power grids.

At the end of the day, however, research in astronomy and astrophysics is motivated by human curiosity. We want to understand the origin, workings, and fate of universe, and to appreciate our place within it. Astronomy enables us to answer questions that we didn’t even know how to ask 100 years ago.

Wonder and Amazement — The Role of the James Webb Space Telescope

July 13, 2011 by Mario Livio
Artist's depiction of the Webb telescope

Artist's depiction of the Webb telescope

An entire generation has been inspired and informed by the discoveries and spectacular images produced by the Hubble Space Telescope. The”Pillars of Creation,” the “Hubble Ultra Deep Field,” and the “Mystic Mountain” images have not only given us an entirely new perspective on the place of humans in the cosmos, they have rivaled the best art works of our time for visual impact. The James Webb Space Telescope promises to be the “Hubble” for the second half of the present decade and beyond.

One cannot overestimate the importance of inspiration. An old Chinese tale describes a starving man who has found a coin. For half the value of that coin he buys bread – to live – and for the other half he buys a flower – to have something to live for!

Last week, PBS aired a remarkable story that was nothing short of a modern manifestation of this tale.  It described how in the midst of unimaginable horror in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a miraculous symphony orchestra continues to play classical music in Congo’s capital, Kinshasa. You might have thought that the hardships of everyday life would extinguish all art forms, defining them as useless. Yet, this orchestra apparently gives many Congolese something to live for.

Similar sentiments apply to science.

Albert Einstein remarked once that: “The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle.”

What is true for individual men and women is also true for entire nations.  I believe that the James Webb Space Telescope will play an essential part in our future collective experience of the mysterious.

Science and the Human Mind

April 27, 2011 by Mario Livio

blog_2011_04_27bRecently I visited Israel, and while there, I participated in a TV program entitled: “Worth A Thought.”

The concept is rather interesting. Each program in this series consists of two people having a conversation for half an hour. The program covers a wide variety of topics — recent discussions ranged from the Israeli healthcare system to Arab culture.

I was asked to have a conversation with Dr. Robert Aumann, a mathematician who won the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2005. We were supposed to talk about the nature of mathematics and its role as the language of science, but the conversation wandered into the nature of science in general.

In particular, we both agreed that while there is no doubt that some physical reality independent of humans exists out there (Otherwise, as Woody Allen once said: “If nothing really exists, I definitely overpaid for my last carpet”), our DESCRIPTION of that reality — what we call “science” — is heavily influenced by human perception and concepts.

As an example, take a simple statement such as: We are held by the force of gravity onto a sphere called Earth. This statement is loaded with concepts that are creations of the human mind. What is a sphere? It is the collection of all the points that are at an equal distance from a certain point in space. But what is a point? What is distance? What is space? What is a force?

Aumann and I also agreed, however, that the human endeavor to uncover the “laws of nature” would not have been possible at all had such laws not existed in the first pace. In other words, if a hydrogen atom on Earth behaved very differently from a hydrogen atom in a galaxy that is a million light years away, or if the results of experiments in Alabama produced entirely different results from those of the same experiments carried out in New Mexico, all our attempts to understand the universe would have been doomed.

Nature has been kind to us, being governed by universal laws, rather than by some parochial bylaws. This way, even with our biased human minds, we have a chance at deciphering Nature’s grand design.

Through a Glass Darkly

January 19, 2011 by Mario Livio
The 2011 May Symposium will take place May 2-5, 2011 at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland.

The 2011 May Symposium will take place May 2-5, 2011 at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland.

Astronomers of the 19th century noticed that the planet Uranus was straying from the orbit predicted by Newton’s laws. The French mathematician Urbain Leverrier suspected that the deviation was caused by the gravitational pull of a previously unseen planet, and he used the same laws to predict where in the sky such a planet should be.

The planet Neptune was thus discovered in 1846, by the German astronomer Johannes Galle. We could argue that this was the first detection of “dark matter” — matter that was not discovered by its light emission, but rather by its gravitational effects.

Applied on a much larger scale — that of galaxies and clusters of galaxies — similar methods allow us to estimate the amount of dark matter present by observing its gravitational effect on visible objects nearby. These methods have revealed that there is at least five times more dark matter than ordinary matter (the stuff that planets, stars, and galaxies are made of) in the universe. Understanding the precise nature of dark matter, which has more gravitational pull on the cosmos than anything else in it, is one of the major goals of modern astrophysics.

No wonder, then, that the Space Telescope Science Institute decided to organize an international symposium on this topic in the spring of 2011. The idea behind these symposia is to bring together researchers in astrophysics, who discovered the existence of the dark matter and can determine its spatial distribution on large scales, with particle physicists, who attempt to determine the nature of the subatomic particles that are thought to be the constituents of dark matter.

After many weeks of deliberations, the Scientific Organizing Committee of the symposium has just about completed an exciting list of invited speakers. It can be seen at:


The topic is currently so “hot” that we can perhaps hope that some major discovery will be announced during the symposium. How galaxies form, what they look like, and the nature of the large-scale structure of the universe all depend on the nature of dark matter and its behavior. Clearly, we cannot get very far without shedding some light on dark matter.

JWST in the Park

June 17, 2010 by Mario Livio
The Webb Telescope in Battery Park

The Webb Telescope in Battery Park

The “World Science Festival” took place in New York City from June 1-6, 2010, and the Webb Telescope was one of its stars.

This was a magnificent celebration of science and the arts. In no fewer than 40 events, scientists and artists engaged in conversations, performances, presentations and debates on topics ranging from black holes to music, from mathematics to poisonous frogs.

A full-size model of the James Webb Space Telescope was assembled in Battery Park, at the southern tip of Manhattan. Thousands of people, many of whom were young students, came to admire this impressive, tennis-court-size representation of cutting-edge technology, which also resembles a modern sculpture.

They listened to talks, asked questions, watched videos, and were intrigued by a demonstration of an infrared camera. They were fascinated by the science of the 21st century, and the new horizons that this telescope will open up.

Poetic phrases such as “on a clear day you can see forever” were running through my mind. I couldn’t stop thinking that there was no better place to put this model, symbolizing the almost unlimited opportunities of future knowledge, than Battery Park, where the Statue of Liberty is in sight!

Wonders of the World

February 19, 2010 by Mario Livio

Astronauts repairing Hubble drift above Australia in this image from the second servicing mission, featured in "Wonders of the World."

Almost every weekend I try to go to a few bookstores, to see if there is anything new that I might find interesting. (My wife is not that happy with this habit, since I often end up buying a few books.)

Last weekend, a book in the photography section caught my eye.

It was entitled: “Wonders of the World: 50 Must-See Natural and Man-Made Marvels,” and it was published by Life books.

The book started with a collection of photographs related to the famous seven wonders of the ancient world. It continued with a modern set of Wonders of the World, chosen in 2007 by over 100 million votes. I flipped through a gorgeous section entitled “Wonders of Today,” until I reached pages 76-77, and there it was: The Hubble Telescope! The description included one photograph of the 1997 servicing mission, and four Hubble astronomical images.

Unlike the wonders of the ancient world, no one except the astronauts on servicing missions can actually visit the Hubble Telescope. But the short accompanying article noted that Hubble “has been sending back data that has thrilled scientists and pictures that have fascinated all of us.”

Just as I was contemplating what an honor this was, to be working on a project included in the exclusive list of the 50 Wonders of the World, I discovered that the two “endpapers”  — the pages just inside the front and back covers — were images of the Hubble Ultra Deep Field.

All that was left to say was: Wow!

Speaking of Impact

November 11, 2009 by Mario Livio

blog_11_11_09The Greek physician Hippocrates of Cos (ca. 460 – 377 BCE), said once: “avoid all citations from the poets, for to quote from them argues feeble industry.” He did not have a similar opinion about citations of scientific results.

These days, the Hubble Space Telescope has passed yet another milestone. There have been more than 300,000 citations in scientific papers to results based on Hubble data. To be precise, on November 5, 2009, the number of citations was 301,373.

Think about this for a moment. This means that on average, every day since Hubble’s launch, there have been more than 40 citations to Hubble-based research!

One could hardly have expected a higher level of scientific impact. No wonder then, that when particle physicists expressed their ambitions for the Large Hadron Collider – the enormous particle accelerator near Geneva – they said that they “hope the machine will be a sort of Hubble Space Telescope of inner space.”