Proving the Big Bang

2006 Nobel Prize in Physics winner John Mather, Ph.D., to deliver the 2017 Grand Seminar lecture

By Rita Buettner  |  Photos courtesy of NASA

As a boy growing up in Sussex County, N.J., John Mather, Ph.D., remembers driving hours to visit the Museum of Natural History in New York City.

“It’s a thrilling adventure when you’re 8 years old,” he remembers. “After that, I read everything I could about science.”

Every few weeks the bookmobile visited the dairy farm where he lived, and he read everything he could find on the science topics that interested him. Eventually he started requesting books he had seen in Scientific American from the library in Trenton, N.J., and he kept reading.

“That bookmobile was my lifeline to the world,” he says.

Portrait, NASA Scientist, Dr. John C. Mather, NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC. April 9, 2007. Dr. Mather was a co-recipient of the 2006 Nobel Prize for Physics. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Portrait, NASA Scientist, Dr. John C. Mather, NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC. April 9, 2007. Dr. Mather was a co-recipient of the 2006 Nobel Prize for Physics. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

In 2006, Mather was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics. He is a senior astrophysicist in the Observational Cosmology Laboratory at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. And he has co-written a book, The Very First Light: The True Inside Story of the Scientific Journey Back to the Dawn of the Universe.

Mather will visit Loyola University Maryland to deliver the 2017 Grand Seminar on Feb. 27, 2017, at 5:30 p.m. in McGuire Hall. He will present “The History of the Universe from the Beginning to the End.”

Mather, whose research focuses on infrared astronomy and cosmology, was a Nuclear Regulatory Commission postdoctoral fellow at the Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York City when he had an idea he wanted to try in outer space. He told his boss, who called his friends.

“The idea grew to be the whole satellite that we flew,” Mather says. “I was just 28, just out of grad school. I thought, ‘This isn’t very likely to work, but we should try it.’”

Not only did it work, that idea became the Cosmic Background Explorer, which took measurements that confirmed the Big Bang as the origin of the universe.

Mather’s measurements of the cosmic microwave background radiation using the COBE satellite earned him the Nobel Prize.

Today Mather is senior project scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope, leading the science team and representing scientific interests within the project management. The Webb has been in development since 1995 and will launch in about two years.

“What makes it special and different is that it’s gigantic,” he says. “It will have seven times as much collecting area as the Hubble. It’s so big that it has to be folded up to go into the rocket.”

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James Webb Space Telescope. Photo Credit: NASA/MSFC/David Higginbotham | Flickr Creative Commons

Mather anticipates the Webb will help answer the question of what happened after the Big Bang, giving insight into where the first stars and black holes came from, as well as the galaxies.

“The Milky Way has roughly 4 billion stars, but it seems they did not all form at once. It seems that little things flowed together to make big things,” he says.

The telescope will also give scientists the opportunity to watch as stars like the Sun are being formed.

“The last big territory is: what about life?” Mather says.

“We can’t see life with this one, but we can find out whether planets like Earth exist. We know that they’re the same temperature and size—they’re pretty common. What we don’t know is the rest of the story. Do they have continents and oceans? Do they have life? Do they have a moon? We don’t know any of that yet, but we would like to know.”

The Webb won’t answer all of these questions, but it’s an important enough piece of equipment that Mather has dedicated these decades of his career to it.

“We will make some progress. We will definitely not get to the end of this topic,” he says. “We have quite a few centuries ahead of us, I think, which is still a very short time in the cosmic plan.”

Learn more about the 2017 Grand Seminar here.

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