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John Mather
John Mather
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John Mather Biography

Nobel Prize in Physics

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  John Mather

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John C. Mather was born in Roanoke, Virginia. There were scientists and teachers on both sides of his family. Shortly after John Mather was born, the family moved to a research farm operated by Rutgers University in rural New Jersey, where his father, a research scientist with expertise in statistics and animal husbandry, conducted studies on milk production.

Growing up in farm country, with his father's scientific equipment close at hand, young John Mather took an early interest in nature and science. Far from city lights, he had an excellent opportunity to study the stars with the aid of the telescopes he assembled from mail order kits. He fed his mind with books from the Sussex County bookmobile, built shortwave radio kits and designed projects for the school science fair, including a remote-controlled robot that failed to perform as hoped.

Between terms of high school he attended summer science programs sponsored by the National Science Foundation, including a summer physics program at Cornell University. He placed first in a statewide physics competition for high school students, and chose to attend Swarthmore College for its excellent physics program. He continued to excel in physics as an undergraduate and received a National Science Foundation Fellowship for graduate study. Although he initially chose Princeton University for graduate school, a summer job at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in California changed his mind, and he pursued his graduate studies in the physics department of the University of California at Berkeley.

John Mather Biography Photo
Extreme nearsightedness disqualified Mather for military service during the Vietnam War, and he was able to concentrate on his graduate studies, despite the turbulent atmosphere of Berkeley in the late '60s. While looking for a topic for his doctoral thesis, he was drawn into the orbit of Dr. Charles Townes, a Berkeley professor who had received the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics. The doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows working with Dr. Townes were exploring cosmic background radiation, a phenomenon that had only recently been discovered but which could provide a record of the earliest history of the universe. This microwave radiation, dispersed throughout space, is the cool remnant of the first light released when the universe began its expansion 13.7 billion years ago.

Mather imagined that if he could measure variations in the temperature of this radiation from one part of the universe to another, he could trace the paths the newborn galaxies traveled from their common starting point. As his doctoral thesis project, Mather sought to devise a system for measuring this radiation, known as CMBR (Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation). He and his colleagues installed their device, a far infrared spectrometer, on a mountaintop, but their spectrometer could not overcome atmospheric interference and failed to gather the data they had sought. They next attempted to launch a spectrometer in upper atmosphere with a weather balloon, but this too failed. Mather received his doctorate for the design of the system, but his exploration of cosmic origins had come to a dead end. Instead, he took a National Research Council postdoctoral position in radio astronomy with the Goddard Institute for Space Studies at Columbia University in New York City.

John Mather Biography Photo
In 1974, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Agency (NASA) invited the scientific community to submit proposals for satellite projects to be launched on the Scout and Delta rockets. Mather reviewed his old project, and concluded that the background radiation could be most accurately measured from outer space, where no earthly noise or heat could disturb it. With the assistance of his postdoctoral adviser, Patrick Thaddeus, and a small team of his colleagues at Goddard, Mather proposed launching a satellite to measure CMBR from outer space. Mather presented his proposal at an international conference in Amsterdam where it was poorly received. Many who read the proposal could not imagine that such an experiment would succeed in finding anything significant, but Mather's colleagues back at Berkeley had made progress with their balloon technology, and Mather continued to refine the proposal.

In the fall of 1976, NASA decided a satellite mission was worth a try and began initial studies. The project was dubbed the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) and Mather was named as Study Scientist. Mather joined the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. By 1979, initial studies were complete and NASA was ready to begin construction of the project. Changes were underway in Mather's personal life at this time too. In 1974, he had met Jane Hauser, and the two were married in 1980.

John Mather Biography Photo
For the rest of the decade, Mather led a team of over 1,000 scientists and engineers, designing and building the exquisitely calibrated instruments required for the COBE project. The project had to be re-designed for launch from the Space Shuttle when Congress cancelled further production of the Delta rocket. After the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986, the project was re-designed again, and in 1989, COBE was finally launched into space, by one of the remaining Delta rockets in NASA's inventory.

With breathtaking precision, the COBE satellite recorded the temperature of radiation released 13 billion years ago, when the universe was in its infancy. The satellite gathered its data for four years, and although it took many more years to analyze the data it collected, Mather had found what he was looking for: small temperature variations in the cosmic microwave background that fills space. The comparison of these small variations revealed trails of cooler temperature, spreading in a fanlike pattern across the warmer background of the universe, exactly the "blackbody" pattern predicted by the Big Bang theory. No other theory yet offered could explain this distribution of radiation. Mather's discovery validates the work of Stephen Hawking and other cosmologists, and provides a rough sketch of the universe as it appeared 389,000 years after the Big Bang.

John Mather Biography Photo
In 1995, John Mather began work developing the most sophisticated telescope in history. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), for which Mather serves as Senior Project Scientist, will orbit the sun in synchronization with the Earth. From there, it will detect infrared light from distant stars, emitted billions of years ago, and penetrate the dust clouds where stars are born. In 1996, Dr. Mather published a memoir of the COBE project, The Very First Light: The Inside Story of the Scientific Journey Back to the Dawn of the Universe.

The Swedish Academy honored Dr. Mather's achievement with the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics. He is the first of NASA's civilian scientists to receive the award. He used the prize money to endow a scholarship program, through the National Space Grant Foundation, to enable NASA and Goddard Center interns to present their research at professional conferences. In 2007, John Mather was promoted to the post of Chief Scientist of the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, advising the agency on all its scientific programs, from Earth science to cosmology

This page last revised on Mar 27, 2014 16:46 EDT
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