400 Years After Galileo, Astronomy's New Golden Age

Four centuries ago next week, Galileo publicly unveiled his first telescope. The world has been looking skyward ever since. Guy Raz talks with Dr. Robert Williams, the president of the International Astronomical Union, who once used the Hubble telescope to examine what appeared to be a blank patch of sky — and found about 3,000 galaxies.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Four hundred years ago next week, an Italian inventor unveiled his latest creation to lawmakers in Venice. His name: Galileo. And his invention, of course, was the telescope.

To mark the occasion, we turn to Robert Williams. He is the new president of the International Astronomical Union. And he says we're now in the midst of a Golden Age in Astronomy.

Dr. ROBERT WILLIAMS (President, International Astronomical Union): A Golden Age is the confluence of some of the discoveries in the past decade or so. We now know that black holes do exist, as exotic as these things are, and that our Milky Way Galaxy actually is host to a massive black hole in the center of the galaxy. We know definitely that other planets exist around other stars.

And we know now an amazing fact, really, that the universe is not only expanding, which we've known for almost a century, but it's speeding up. We'd always thought that it would be slowing down because of the universal attraction of gravity.

So you go to a cocktail party. You know, you sit down on an airplane. You talk to the people in the seat next to you. Everyone finds what we are discovering about the universe fascinating at this time.

RAZ: You made headlines in 1995 after you were given 10 days with the famous Hubble telescope. You decided to point it at a seemingly blank patch of sky. And you came up with something that we now call the Hubble Deep Field, a section of sky that revealed 3,000 galaxies. Take us back to that moment. What were you originally after?

Dr. WILLIAMS: I was after the same thing I was after when I grew up in Southern California. Got a paper route when I was 12, 13 years old, first thing I did with it is buy a little telescope. And I took it out on a dark night to see what I could see, particularly the faintest, farthest things.

Fifty years later, I had a larger telescope. Still felt it was important to do the same thing. I'm a risk taker. And basically, we were taking a risk by using the telescope to point it at a blank area of sky and see what we could see. But I had enough confidence that something interesting would come out of that, that I thought of it important to do.

The fact is we did find galaxies, more than a lot of people predicted. And therefore, it moved back the epoch of galaxy formation earlier in time.

RAZ: At the rate of discovery now, what do you expect to be discovered before the end of your life?

Dr. WILLIAMS: We have currently in science no way of knowing what preceded the Big Bang, or even if it makes sense to talk about what happened before it. Because again, time is something that is intimately tied up with the nature of matter, and we don't know what that was.

But given the rate of which discoveries have been made - even during my lifetime - I bet that within a century or two, we may well find a way to get information about the state of the universe that preceded the Big Bang. That, to me, would be mind-boggling.

RAZ: Dr. Robert Williams is the president of the International Astronomical Union, and he's with the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. He joined us from member station WYPR in that city.

Dr. Williams, thank you so much.

Dr. WILLIAMS: My pleasure.

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