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John Mather
John Mather
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John Mather Interview

Nobel Prize in Physics

October 26, 2012
Washington, D.C.

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  John Mather

When did you first know that you wanted to pursue astrophysics and cosmology?

John Mather: When I was a child, I was really interested in astronomy, and it was just one of those things that was full of mystery at that time. I studied lenses and telescopes and I saw the surface of the sun with a little telescope that I made with lenses in a cardboard tube. So I was all enthusiastic about astronomy when I was in grade school. And then I learned a little bit more in high school, and I took physics courses. And finally, through graduate school, I was thinking I wanted to be a particle physicist, because that was the biggest mystery of that time. Then I was looking for a thesis project though, and I found an adviser who had this new idea to measure the cosmic microwave background radiation -- the primordial heat of the universe. It had just been discovered five years before that, so it was time to go measure. So okay. Well, I'll try that. So that was the beginning of my career as an astrophysicist. Most of my training is as a physicist rather than as an astronomer.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

What did you find intriguing or challenging about this work?

John Mather: Well, that particular project was just laboratory work. "Let's build an apparatus to measure something." I've always loved the idea of building things to measure things, so that was my perfect thing. It turned out to be very hard to do, and my career took a few turns. In particular, my thesis project didn't work after it was launched. There's a story there. But anyway, here I am.

What happened when you hit that setback? What did that teach you?

John Mather: I got to write a thesis about a project that didn't quite work. And I declared to myself -- I thought to myself -- "Well, this is way too hard for a young person. I'm going to get out of this field." So I got a job offer to become a radio astronomer. "Okay, I'll do that." And I got a post-doc position at the NASA Laboratory in New York City with a radio astronomer. By then, NASA had another idea. They announced an opportunity for proposals -- in 1974 this was. So I said to my adviser, "Well, you know, my thesis project failed, but it really should have been done in outer space." So he said, "Well, we'll call up our friends. These are people who know what to do with an idea like this." We had a meeting and created the concept for a satellite mission that would measure the cosmic microwave background radiation the way that it should be measured. It was a long process after that, but 15 years later we launched it and it worked that time. So my thesis project basically lasted for 25 years.

What do you learn from setbacks? We've become something of an "instant gratification" society, and with the whole process of science you have to have so much patience.

John Mather: To me, it was never a matter of patience. It was a matter of "That's the only way to go."

The setback of the failure of that apparatus really showed me something truly important, which was: If you don't test it, it's not going to work. People sometimes would say to you, "Well, why don't you just take a risk and push the button and it will work?" It might work. And I think we learned that that's cheating. Nature knows when you're trying to cheat. If you don't build it right, it won't work. So that turned out to be extremely important to me later, because when we were building the satellite, we knew that we didn't have a chance to do it over, and so it darn well better work. So it gave me the heart to say, "You know, if we don't test it, it won't work." That was pretty important at a time when the project that we were doing was running out of money and time and we might not be able to test it properly. So I finally said, "Well, you know, we've got to test." And my colleagues at NASA, the engineers, they know this. They know if you don't test it, it won't work. They're very determined. But it was really important for me to back them up and say, "Yes, we will test it." So it did work and then it did wonderful things.

[ Key to Success ] Preparation

John Mather Interview Photo
John Mather Interview Photo

Do you ever think that an age of space exploration has come to an end? Have we given up on that kind of exploration?

John Mather: Personally my experience is we are going like crazy for ambitious projects to explore the solar system, to explore the cosmos, doing everything we possibly can. Our technology has gotten better and better and we can do these amazing things. Our application to things at home keeps on improving too. So as far as I can tell, we are continuing to do even more than we ever could before. Maybe the public isn't noticing, because their attention is on other things. Among other things we didn't have any big disasters lately. When the Hubble telescope was launched and was a problem, then everybody knew about it, and then we fixed it. So we were in the news. When you do everything right, people don't notice. They just say, "Oh, that's cool. They must not be doing anything exciting." But to me, what we're doing scientifically is as exciting as you could possibly imagine. I guess, perhaps you're also talking about the manned program, which has come to a temporary end in the sense of we no longer have a space shuttle to fly. But we're very close now to getting people to ride on our commercial launch vehicles that were set out as part of the plan. So pretty soon we should be able to do that again. That's pretty important.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

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