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The Cosmic Adventure

Astronomy professor George Rhee shares his curiosity about our origins in his Feb. 19 University Forum lecture. Join the conversation, geared for the general public.
Research  |  Feb 17, 2014  |  By Diane Russell
George Rhee, Physics and Astronomy Professor and author of "Cosmic Dawn: The Search for the First Stars and Galaxies" poses on September 24, 2013. (R. Marsh Starks / UNLV Photo Services)
Editor's Note: 

George Rhee will present the University Forum lecture, “Cosmic Dawn: The Search for the First Stars and Galaxies,” at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 19 in the Barrick Museum auditorium. The event is free and open to the public.

UNLV astronomy professor George Rhee sees it all as a question of origins. Everyone wants to know where he or she came from, right?

In Rhee's case, though, he's not researching his personal origins (that'd be Geneva, Switzerland), but instead is involved in a larger quest -- our cosmic beginnings.

"It's like looking for the origin of life. Can we find out when and how exactly the first stars and galaxies formed?" he asked.

Sharing the latest developments in astronomy and what developments might be in the near future with the general public is the purpose of both Rhee's Feb. 19 lecture and his book of the same title.

"I think almost everyone is interested in astronomy at some level," he said. "People look up at the stars and want to know more.

The Next Step

Rhee said the body of knowledge in astronomy expands rapidly. "When I started teaching at UNLV in 1993, we didn't know of any planets outside our solar system," he recalled. "Now we know of more than a thousand."

A major factor in that acceleration of knowledge is the astronomer's primary research tool -- the telescope. The Hubble Space Telescope has provided astronomers with a great deal of data since it launched in 1990, he said. And the quality of the information it is able to obtain improved markedly in 2009, when a new camera was installed on the Hubble.

Now, Rhee said, astronomers are looking forward to the launch of the even more sophisticated James Webb Telescope in 2018. It will employ infrared astronomy, which can penetrate through much of the gas and dust that now blocks many objects from our view, he explained.

"We will be able to see extremely faint objects, objects we just can't see from Earth," Rhee said. The implications for advancing the field of knowledge are tremendous, he added.

"Telescopes are time machines, so we push back further and further in time looking at fainter and fainter images."

All of this brings us closer to answering the question of when and how the first galaxies and stars were formed, he said.

No Stupid Questions

Rhee noted that UNLV astronomy lectures tend to draw diverse crowds -- retirees, teenagers, and parents with children. Often audience members stay after the lecture, asking questions and discussing what they have heard.

It was exactly this kind of lecture that fueled Rhee's own interest in the field of astronomy when he was a teenager. He vividly recalls attending lectures given at CERN in Geneva by Rafel Carreras. The title of the weekly series was "Science for Everybody."

Carreras, Rhee recalls, was a big proponent of "there are no stupid questions," encouraging people to ask about anything they didn't understand. The scientist's enthusiasm for astronomy was contagious -- at least where Rhee was concerned.

"I thought I would like to be (like him) and just be curious for a living."