“We Are the Universe Trying to Understand Itself:” A Q&A with Astrophysicist Thomas Madura

by | Jul 26, 2022 | Research and Innovation

The “Cosmic Cliffs” in the Carina Nebula (NIRCam Image) — one of the images released by NASA’s James Webb Telescope in July 2022. Photo credit: NASA, ESA, CSA, STScI.

On July 12, NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) released its first full-color scientific images and spectroscopic data, marking what NASA describes as “the dawn of a new era of astronomy.” According to NASA, “the Webb is the world’s premier space science observatory,” geared at solving the “mysteries in our solar system,” and is an international program conducted in partnership between NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA). 

The glittery, multicolored images offer a glimpse into the vastness of space, said San José State University’s Thomas Madura, associate professor of physics and astronomy. Madura is a member of NASA’s Early Release Science (ERS) program assigned to observing JWST images to investigate space dust, a key ingredient in the formation of stars and planets.

A theoretical and computational astrophysicist, Madura specializes in the study of massive stars, specifically their late-stage evolution and how these stars lose mass before exploding as powerful supernovae. He received the Early Career Investigator Award from the SJSU Research Foundation in 2020 and leads a $1.5 million National Science Foundation Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers grant that uses 3D printing technologies to help motivate students with blindness or visual impairments to pursue higher education and careers in STEM.

Thomas Madura

Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy Thomas Madura hopes to find new ways to make STEM available to blind and visually impaired students. Photo by David Schmitz.

We sat down with Thomas to learn more about the significance of this new data and what he hopes to achieve with the images he is creating based on these extraordinary findings.

Tell us about the images from NASA’s JWST. Why are they significant?

Thomas Madura: The new JWST images are significant because they represent the dawn of a new age of astronomy. They are the first look at the full capabilities of NASA’s newest flagship space observatory, both in terms of imaging and spectroscopy. 

These images are the official beginning of JWST’s science operations and provide just a taste of what is to come over the next few years.

What do you see when you look at these pictures?

TM: There is a lot to digest in these first images, ranging from the birth of stars in a young, nearby star forming region to the deepest and sharpest infrared image of the distant universe to date. There are signs of galaxy interactions and clearly visible gravitational lensing in some images. There is the direct detection of dust in the planetary nebula around a dying star and signatures of water and clouds in the atmosphere of a gas giant planet orbiting a distant sun-like star. 

These pictures are exciting not just because they are pretty to look at but because they demonstrate the technical capabilities of JWST.

As part of your research, you 3D print images for people with visual impairments. How do you plan to incorporate these new images into your existing curriculum or research?

TM: We hope to create tactile versions of JWST’s images in the near future so that we can share JWST’s discoveries with everyone, including those with blindness/visual impairments. We hope to incorporate tactile images into our National Science Foundation-funded program that helps teach astronomy to students with visual impairments around the country.

What got you interested in physics and astronomy?

TM: I have always been fascinated by astronomy and astrophysics and tried to understand where we came from, and where we are going in the universe. I started when I was young, buying my first simple backyard telescope when I was around 12. I also read a lot of books on astronomy and watched a lot of documentaries like NOVA on television. 

It wasn’t until high school that I discovered that one can actually have a career in astronomy and get paid to study the stars. That was when I decided to go to college and major in physics with a concentration in astronomy/astrophysics.

What message do you want to share with members of the SJSU community about the importance of understanding space?

TM: Simply put, we are the universe trying to understand itself. All of us and nearly everything on our planet, including the planet itself, comes from dead star stuff. 

If we are to understand where we came from, where we are going, and if there is other intelligent life in the universe, we need to understand space. There is also the practical everyday aspect of space. Space weather influences our climate and affects our technologies. 

The technologies developed to study and understand space also eventually work their way down into technologies we use every day. A great example is the camera in your cell phone.

Learn more about Madura’s work.