All achievers

John C. Mather, Ph.D.

Nobel Prize in Physics

The life of a scientist is all about the creative process.

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.

In this 1993 photo, taken at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, John Mather stands before an image representing the distribution of matter in the early universe, as revealed by the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) project. Mather holds a model of the COBE satellite in his hands. (© Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS)
In this 1993 photo, taken at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, Dr. John C. Mather stands before an image representing the distribution of matter in the early universe, as revealed by the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) project. Mather holds a model of the COBE satellite in his hands. (Roger Ressmeyer)

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 displays radio maps made by the COBE satellite. The satellite discovered variations in the universe's background radiation, helping to refine the Big Bang theory. (© Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS)
Nobel Prize laureate John Mather displays radio maps made by the COBE satellite. The satellite discovered variations in the universe’s background radiation, helping to refine the Big Bang theory. (Roger Ressmeyer)

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 recounts the arc of his career in a symposium discussion with the Academy student delegates and members during the 2007 International Achievement Summit in Washington, D.C. (© Academy of Achievement)
John Mather recounts the arc of his career in a symposium discussion with the Academy student delegates and members during the 2007 International Achievement Summit in Washington, D.C. (© Academy of Achievement)

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 advisor, 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.

At NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., John Mather takes questions from the press after receiving word he has won the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics. Mather's studies of cosmic radiation helped determine the age of the universe and have added weight to the Big Bang theory of its origin. (© Larry Downing/Reuters/CORBIS)
At NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., Dr. John C. Mather takes questions from the press after receiving word he had won the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics. Mather’s studies of cosmic radiation helped determine the age of the universe and have added confirmation to the Big Bang theory of its origin. (© Larry Downing/Reuters/CORBIS)

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.

John C. Mather and his wife Jane arrive for the Nobel Prize dinner at the Royal Palace in Stockholm, Sweden, December 11, 2006. (AP Images/Scanpix, Janerik Henriksson)
2006: John C. Mather and wife, Jane, arrive for the Nobel Prize dinner at the Royal Palace in Stockholm, Sweden.

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.

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.

John Mather receives the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics from King Carl Gustaf of Sweden at the Concert Hall in Stockholm. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences made the award jointly to Mather and his fellow scientist George Smoot III "for their discovery of the blackbody form and anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background radiation." (© BOB STRONG/Reuters/ CORBIS)
Dr. John Mather receives the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics from King Carl Gustaf of Sweden at the Concert Hall in Stockholm. The Swedish Academy of Sciences made the award jointly to Mather and his fellow scientist George Smoot III “for discovery of the blackbody form and anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background radiation.”

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.

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) as it will appear in orbit. The telescope will be launched on an Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana in October of 2018. JWST will be the premier observatory of the next decade, serving thousands of astronomers worldwide. It will study every phase in the history of our Universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our own Solar System.
The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) as it will appear in orbit. The telescope will be launched on an Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana in October of 2018. JWST will be the premier observatory of the next decade, serving thousands of astronomers worldwide. It will study every phase in the history of our Universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our Solar System. John Mather is the senior project scientist for the Webb Telescope.

In 2016, Dr. John Mather and NASA administrator Charles Bolden unveiled the James Webb Space Telescope’s mirror at the Goddard Space Flight Center. The $8 billion Webb Telescope is a technologically ambitious project, requiring ten new technologies to make it work. The telescope’s mirror is  twenty-one feet in diameter which is three times larger than the Hubble Telescope’s mirror. The objective of the Webb Telescope is to “explore a realm of cosmic history about 150 million to one billion years after time began known as the Reionization Epoch, when bright and violent new stars in the searing radiation from quasars were burning away a gloomy fog of hydrogen gas that prevailed at the end of the Big Bang.” One particular goal involves observing some of the most distant events and objects of the Universe, such as the formation of the first galaxies.

Inducted Badge
Inducted in 2007

The Big Bang theory proposes that the universe we know emerged from a uniformly hot and impenetrable mass of protons, electrons and radiation. But until recently, we knew very little of the first stages of the 13-billion-year process in which our cosmos took shape. In 1974, a young astrophysicist, fresh from graduate school at Berkeley, set out to fill in this gap in human knowledge.

John Mather devised a proposal for a satellite, the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE), to measure the microwave background radiation in space. The scheme seemed far-fetched, but Mather persuaded NASA to undertake the mission, and was hired by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center to guide the project. In 1989, COBE was launched into space. Analysis of the data took many years more, but by 1992, Mather had found what he was looking for. With this data, we can draw a map of the universe as it existed roughly 389,000 years after the Big Bang, “a baby picture of the universe.”

Mather’s discovery has been hailed as “the missing link in cosmology.” The Swedish Academy praised Mather for elevating cosmology to a precision science, and honored his achievement with the Nobel Prize. Today, he leads a NASA team building the most sophisticated telescope ever devised. We can only guess what wonders it may reveal.

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

Keys to success — Passion

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 advisor 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.

At the 2007 International Achievement Summit in Washington, D.C., Dr. John Mather of NASA describes the dispersion of galaxies after the Big Bang. (© Academy of Achievement)
At the 2007 International Achievement Summit in Washington, D.C., Dr. John Mather of NASA — recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics — describes the dispersion of galaxies after the Big Bang. (© Academy of Achievement)

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 advisor, “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.

In a 2006 press conference at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., John C. Mather shows some of the earliest data from the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite. (© NASA/Bill Ingalls/ CORBIS)
2006: Dr. John C. Mather shows some of the earliest data from the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite.

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.”

Keys to success — Preparation

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.

Dr. John Mather presents the Golden Plate Award of the Academy of Achievement to Dr. Adam Riess, a fellow recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics, at the 2012 International Achievement Summit in Washington, D.C. (© Academy of Achievement)
Dr. John Mather presents the Golden Plate Award of the American Academy of Achievement to Dr. Adam Riess, a fellow recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics, at the 2012 International Achievement Summit in Washington, D.C.

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

Keys to success — Passion

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.