The Georgetown University Italian Research Institute and the Embassy of Italy hosted Adam Riess, the 2011 Nobel laureate in physics and astronomy, and Massimo Stiavelli, the James Webb Space Telescope mission head, the James Webb Space Telescope mission head, in a discussion on astronomy as part of the celebration of the 450th anniversary of Galileo’s birth on Tuesday.

The discussion, titled “Galileo: The Exploration of the Universe,” was part of a series of activities in celebration of Galileo in D.C. Physics professor and Joseph Semmes Ives Chair in Physics Peter Olmsted moderated the event.

Director of the Italian Research Institute Sara Hager opened the discussion with remarks about Galileo’s outstanding achievements.

“During his turbulent yet very productive life, Galileo’s discoveries, with the help of his telescope, and his strong belief in the Copernican heliocentric view of the universe, began a revolution which shaped modern astronomy,” Hager said.

Riess, who delivered a talk entitled “Using Telescopes to see Dark Energy”, described how his team discovered the acceleration of the universe, which was identified by NASA as the greatest achievement by the Hubble telescope to date.

“Over the last decade, this measurement has been confirmed in at least eight different independent ways, different ways that we have of measuring the universe,” Riess said.

However, Riess said that understanding the nature of dark energy is still one of the greatest challenges faced by physicists today.

“We did win the Nobel Prize, in 2011, and that was a lot of fun, but behind this there is a much darker concern,” Riess said. “We know that the universe is accelerating, but we don’t really understand the quantum underpinnings of gravity.”

Riess also acknowledged the difficulty in understanding black holes and the vastness of the universe.

“If you are an optimist, you are probably very impressed at this point, as we have discovered the recipe of the universe,” Riess said.“If you are a pessimist, you will say that most of the universe is made up of stuff that we don’t understand yet.”

Stiavelli, who delivered a keynote titled “Then and Now: The Evolution of Astronomy Since the Time of Galileo,” contrasted the differences in the basic understanding of astronomy between Galileo’s time and now.

Hager said that Galileo’s discoveries have continued to inspire modern physicists, such as Riess and Stiavelli.

“His legacy lives on, as exemplified by tonight’s guest speakers, two leading physicists and innovators,” Hager said. “Both have gone beyond Galileo’s explorations and continued to explore the immensity and the unknown forces that govern the universe,The mysterious and fascinating world of galaxies, planets, supernovae, black holes and dark energy. When we ponder on the vastness of the universe, the findings and the discoveries of leading astronomers never cease to amaze us. We are simply spellbound.”

Georgetown College Dean Chester Gillis attributed the work of both physicists to the advancement of modern science.

“They are among a select group of scientists who dare to venture in an ambitious and challenging journey into our expanding universe and reveal to us the very complex forces that govern our universe, such as dark matter,” Gillis said. “Their curiosity and research have contributed to the advancement of science, enabling us to begin to grasp the mysteries of nature and of the universe itself.”

Deputy Chief of Mission at the Embassy of Italy Luca Franchetti Pardo also noted the physicists’ contributions.

“These distinguished scientists have inspired us with their contributions, and we look forward to continue to follow their scholarly enterprises, which continue to enhance the world of science, and provide many advancements in the knowledge of the universe,” Franchetti said.

 

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