Astronomer Robert Williams to Discuss his Work with the Hubble Space Telescope on Oct. 22 at UMass Amherst

Robert Williams
Robert Williams

AMHERST, Mass. – Robert Williams, former director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, will speak on “Probing the Distant Universe with Hubble Space Telescope” on Monday, Oct. 22 at 8 p.m. in the Student Union Ballroom at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

The talk is free and open to the public.

In 1993, when Williams became the new director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, the organization that runs the science operations of the Hubble Space Telescope for NASA, astronauts had just fixed the manufacturing mistake that was making the orbiting observatory’s vision blurry and restored its capabilities to their full potential.

Williams realized that a facility so powerful could maximize its scientific return only if its unique data were made available to the whole world community immediately after acquisition, a dramatic paradigm shift in the way astronomical observatories had been operated until then. In a bold move in December 1995, Williams used his “Director Discretionary Time,” the fraction of a telescope’s observing time that the director can use for special projects, for an unprecedented experiment: stare on the same spot on the sky for 10 consecutive days to image the faintest and most distant astronomical sources ever unveiled by humans. Thus the Hubble Deep Field was born. He made the images available to anyone who had the curiosity to look and study them and the findings turned out to be nothing short of transformative.

Since then, Treasury/Legacy Projects, as NASA calls these open projects nowadays, have yielded among the most successful and far reaching investigations of the cosmos ever made using public facilities.

Williams is currently astronomer emeritus at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, and Distinguished Osterbrock Professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz. From 1993-98 he served as director of the institute, which operates Hubble with the Goddard Space Flight Center for NASA and the European Space Agency. Before assuming his present positions Williams spent 8 years in Chile as director of the Cerro Tololo Interamerican Observatory, the national observatory of the U.S. in the Southern Hemisphere. Prior to that time, he was professor of astronomy at the University of Arizona in Tucson for 18 years.

Williams’ research specialties include novae, nebulae, and emission-line spectroscopy and analysis.

Williams received his undergraduate degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1962, and a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of Wisconsin in 1965. He was senior Fulbright professor at University College London from 1972-73, and received the Alexander von Humboldt Award from the German government in 1991. In 1998, he was awarded the Beatrice Tinsley Prize of the American Astronomical Society for his leadership of the Hubble Deep Field project. For this project he was awarded the NASA Distinguished Public Service Medal in 1999. Williams is an elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and is a past president of the International Astronomical Union. In 2016, he was awarded the Karl Schwarzschild Medal for career achievement in astrophysics by the German Astronomische Gesellschaft. He is a strong advocate for science education and has lectured around the world on astronomical discoveries and the importance of science in modern life.