Office Hours with Aldo: Joaquin Vieira (w/ video)

Office Hours with Aldo: Joaquin Vieira (w/ video)

On Thursdays throughout the semester, staff writer Adalberto Toledo will book an appointment with a UI professor. Today: JOAQUIN VIEIRA, an observational cosmologist in the Department of Astronomy.

Vieira, an associate professor of astronomy, finds himself most comfortable outside his office.

Off campus, that could mean the subfreezing wastes of Antarctica, or the green fields outside CERN in Geneva, or the radio telescope array 16,000 feet above sea level in Chile — all places the frequent flier has traveled for work.

On campus, Vieira's preferred "playground" is his laboratory, down one flight of stairs from his office in the Astronomy building, opposite the Illinois Street Residence Halls.

As an observational cosmologist, Vieira has worked across the entire electromagnetic spectrum to identify what makes galaxies tick. He builds experiments, conducts surveys and performs observations on distant galaxies. He's pointed virtually every space telescope at something he wanted to observe, and he'll continue to do that in the future, with the James Webb Telescope — a $10 billion project — set to launch in less than a year.

Here's more talk of space stuff from Vieira:

How big a deal was this week's successful SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket launch from Cape Canaveral, Fla.?

It's really exciting; it means we can send stuff into space much more cheaply. And actually, when I was coming here, I was weighing what to do, and I had an offer at SpaceX: I would have been physicist No. 2.Why'd you choose the UI over SpaceX?

Ultimately, it came down to the fact I wanted to ride my bike to work and I wanted to be able to afford a home for my family. I was already in Los Angeles when I was thinking about where to go and all the things that I wanted.

I was like, "Oh, I want to live near the ocean, and mountains, and my family, and have a good music scene, and have a good food scene," and when I thought about it, I was like, "Well, I already have all of this now and I don't have time to do any of them, so what do I really, really want?

"I want to ride my bike to work, and I want a house."

What do you think about your office?

It's fine. It's homey.

Is there anything in here that you have to have?

I don't know; it's kind of junky. I mean, I guess the thing that my wife would never let me put up in the house is the Chart of the Nuclei. It's kind of like a nuclear periodic table. Instead of being organized by the atomic structure of the element — like where the electrons are — this is where the nuclei are. It's all the stuff that makes up the universe. And I guess my books, too. But this isn't really my playground. My playground is the lab downstairs.

What do you love the most about your job?

Well, my research, I love. And I'm very fortunate to be able to do it, and that's great. Life as a college professor? I'd say 80 percent of the time it's my dream job, and maybe 10 percent of the time I'm wondering why I decided to do this, because it can be really stressful. And then 10 percent of the time I'm too busy to bother about what my life is.

Some of your work focuses on the evolution of galaxies. How exactly does a galaxy come to be?

Pretty much everything in astronomy starts off as a big cloud of gas and dust and then gravity collapses it down.

But galaxies come in all different shapes, colors and sizes, and so part of the mystery is figuring out why some galaxies have lots of stars and some have few stars. Why do some look the way they do, and why do others have a different morphology? Why do some galaxies have blue colors and are actively forming stars? Why do some galaxies have huge reservoirs of gas?

We think we have a general idea of this, but it's also the complication of evolving this back through time to the earliest galaxies.

One thing I'm particularly interested in is how the first galaxies formed, what they looked like — particularly the most extreme galaxies — what were the details of the formation, and how did they form so many stars so fast.

The galaxies that I mostly study I discovered with a telescope that I built as a graduate student called the South Pole Telescope, and from that we did a really wide cosmological surveys where we surveyed something like 15 percent of the sky and we discovered a new population of galaxies.

And the reason we were seeing them is because we found they were strongly gravitationally lensed, which is a consequence of Einstein's theory of general relativity. It means that gravity can bend light, so it acts literally like a lens. What it does is it magnifies the galaxy so we can get a better picture of it. We can see further away and in more detail.

I use things on the ground like the Atacama Large Millimeter Array, which is the largest ground-based project of all time, and I was one of the first people to use it. That was kind of how I got my name, or you know, why I have this job.

And we use pretty much everything in space — Hubble, Chandra, Spitzer, Herschel, pretty much every facility in space.

We're a year away to the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope. Are you excited about that?

So it's the largest, most ambitious space telescope of all time. Arguably, you could say it's one of the largest scientific projects in the history of humanity. I mean, it's that, the human genome project and probably the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Those are all like $10 billion-class projects. So, yeah.

These galaxies are going to be the first thing targeted by this telescope, so that's particularly exciting to be basically the first person to use this super toy. I'm already busy, but this will make me more busy.

Because most of these galaxies are surrounded by dust, they're actually really hard to observe, and so we need a powerful tool like this to see them, and we're hoping to observe the earliest massive galaxies and see how they form their stars.How does the Milky Way fit into all of this?

There's a huge spectrum of galaxies, and weirdly, it turns out that the Milky Way is — surprise, surprise — very normal. You really have to figure out what makes a galaxy typical or not typical to understand our place in the cosmos.

It didn't have to be like that; it could've been that we ended up in an atypical galaxy.

What's the biggest question you have that you'll be able to answer with the James Webb?

Personally, I think that historically, with science projects like these, the most amazing thing that we learn isn't what we set out to discover. And so for me, it's the thrill of discovery.

The thing I'm most excited about is that we finally get to weigh these galaxies and figure out how many stars it currently has, and to you, that's probably just a nitty-gritty detail. But to me, we finally have the tool to get that exact detail down because that's important in science. And that's cool.

But the thing I'm really excited about is discovering something unknown about these galaxies.

Have you made any big discoveries? Anything in your field that you've learned that jumps out at you?

Well, I think that the big surprises are that chemistry was in place in the really early universe, way before most people expected it to be. I mean, we've already witnessed water in these galaxies merely a billion years out.

So the universe is about 14 billion years old, and we can see these galaxies out to 10 percent of the age of the universe or even further, actually — so the first billion years of the universe — so when we look at it, we see this rich chemistry, we see water, carbon monoxide, etc.

With these traces and the spectrum, it's amazing, and we get a lot of information, but we've been kind of forced to look at those proxies as opposed to looking at what might be the more fundamental thing, which is stars. And so the James Webb will finally allow us to look at the stars. And if you think about what a galaxy is, it's stars.