John Mather, Nobel Prize in Physics 2006
“I am giving many public lectures, to help the public understand the work we have done and hope to do in the future, and to inspire young people to be as excited about science as I am.”
- Dr. John Mather, Nobel Prize Autobiography
Dr. John Mather, currently a Senior Astrophysicist in the Observational Cosmology Laboratory at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, received his bachelor’s degree in physics from Swarthmore College in 1968. As a National Science Foundation Fellow, he used his fellowship to receive his master’s and doctoral degree in physics at the University of California, Berkeley.
During his first few years at Berkeley he focused in elementary particle physics, following in the footsteps of his hero Richard Feynman. Mather even considered studying the law for a while to “defend the country from the Government of the day”(from hisNobel Prize Autobiography). Ultimately, he came back to physics and in 1970 he began looking for a subject for his thesis. He found Paul Richards who was working with two others on a newly discovered Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. Mather joined the team. Their first project together was to build a small far infrared spectrometer to take to the Barcroft station on White Mountain in eastern California. It went pretty well but his focus changed when Paul Richards came back from sabbatical in England with a new concept for his graduate students. He wanted to build a balloon-borne infrared interferometer to measure the CMBR spectrum and he jumped on the project. Mather’s thesis ended up being about the gound-based work of the design for the balloon instrument.
He left Berkeley for a postdoctoral fellowship position at Columbia University's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. Here he would lead the proposal efforts on the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE). The success of the COBE was the outcome of prodigious team work involving more than 1,000 researchers, engineers and other participants. John Mather led the project and was the main party responsible for the experiment that revealed the blackbody form of the microwave background radiation measured by COBE. His colleague, Dr. George Smoot, had the main responsibility for measuring the small variations in the temperature of the radiation on the COBE project.
In 2006 Dr. John Mather and Dr. George Smoot were recognized jointly for their exemplary work on COBE and received the Nobel Prize in Physics. From the years 1980 to 2006 Dr. Mather wrote The Very First Light on the process of creating COBE and continued his work with NASA on The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which would be his passion for years to come. The JWST is now planned for launch in 2013. Mather’s role as "senior project scientist" means he chairs the science working group and ensures the mission will meet the scientific requirements. The observatory is fine-tuned to search for extra-solar planets, dark matter and dark energy. The JWST’s infrared cameras will also detect the faint light from the first stars and galaxies to form in the universe, over 13 billion years ago.
- J.C. Mather and J. Boslough, The Very First Light,1996.
- D.J. Fixsen, E.S. Cheng, J.M. Gales, J.C. Mather, R.A. Shafer, and E.L. Wright, "The Cosmic Microwave Background Spectrum from the Full COBE FIRAS Data Set," Astrophysical Journal, 1996.
- R.A. Shafer, J.C. Mather, D.J. Fixen, K.A. Jensen, W.T. Reach, E. Dwek, and E.S. Cheng, "The Far Infrared Background as Measured by COBE FIRAS I: Limits from Dark Sky Measurements," Astrophysical Journal, 1996.