John Wise Joins Neil deGrasse Tyson at 2024 Asimov Debate

April 3, 2024

Has the James Webb Space Telescope changed astrophysics? That was the question posed by Neil deGrasse Tyson to a panel of leading experts, including Georgia Tech’s John Wise, at the 25th annual Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate.

The live event was held on March 19 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and while the 800 available tickets sold out within 20 minutes, the discussion is now publicly available on YouTube.

Tyson is the the Frederick P. Rose Director of the Hayden Planetarium. He personally invited Wise, a professor in the School of Physics and director of the Center for Relativistic Astrophysics, who traveled to New York for the event alongside his wife, Emily Alicea-Muñoz, a fellow physicist and academic professional in the School of Physics.

The discussion centered on how the James Webb Space Telescope has indeed changed astrophysics, especially in relation to understanding the first billion years after the Big Bang when galaxies and black holes were rapidly forming — an area where Wise has significant expertise.

Journey to the stars

“My research group and I have been focusing on this topic for several years, so I was ecstatic to participate in the panel,” Wise says. The event was also an opportunity for the astrophysicist to reconnect with fellow experts — the panel also included Mike Boylan-Kolchin of University of Texas at Austin, Wendy Freedman of the University of Chicago, Priya Natarajan of Yale University, and Rachel Somerville of the Flatiron Institute. Wise had previously collaborated on research with several of the panelists, and Tyson is no stranger to Georgia Tech.

“Just after I received my Ph.D., my collaborators and I worked with the Hayden Planetarium at the American National History Museum to produce a planetarium show segment from my simulations of the first stars,” Wise recalls. The show segment, Journey to the Stars, premiered in 2009 and was narrated by Whoopie Goldberg. Georgia Tech also hosted Tyson in 2014 at the Ferst Center, where many members of the Center for Relativistic Astrophysics met with him.

In the spirit of Isaac Asimov’s legacy of science-oriented storytelling, this year’s debate also provided an opportunity for audience members to “eavesdrop” on robust scientific discussion – with Tyson acting as an interpreter and storyteller, explaining the technical language and helping panelists explain advanced topics. 

“The conversation was fantastic,” says Wise. “Neil really brought out the best in us and our scientific endeavors in uncovering the mysteries of the early universe with the James Webb Space Telescope.” 

About the Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate

The Hayden Planetarium notes that “the late Dr. Isaac Asimov, one of the most prolific and influential authors of our time, was a dear friend and supporter of the American Museum of Natural History. In his memory, the Hayden Planetarium is honored to host the annual Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate — generously endowed by relatives, friends, and admirers of Isaac Asimov and his work — bringing the finest minds in the world to the Museum each year to debate pressing questions on the frontier of scientific discovery. Proceeds from ticket sales of the Isaac Asimov Memorial Debates benefit the scientific and educational programs of the Hayden Planetarium.” Learn more and watch past debates here.


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Written by Selena Langner

Contact: Jess Hunt-Ralston