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Astronomy

Mather will donate portion of Nobel money to endow fellowship

SPIE Fellow John C. Mather, winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics, will donate $300,000 of his $700,000 share of the prize to the Hertz Foundation, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. The money will endow an annual fellowship for one graduate student in astrophysics and cosmology.

Mather shared the prize with George F. Smoot of the University of California, Berkeley, for their collaborative work on understanding the Big Bang. Mather and Smoot analyzed data from NASA's Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE), which studied the pattern of radiation from the first few instants after the universe was formed. In 1992, the COBE team announced that they had mapped the primordial hot and cold spots in the cosmic microwave background radiation. These spots are related to the gravitational field in the early universe, only instants after the Big Bang, and are the seeds for the giant clusters of galaxies that stretch hundreds of millions of light years across the universe.

Smoot donated a portion of his award money to the Berkeley Center for Cosmological Physics.

In early April, NASA announced that Mather will devote more of his time at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD, to provide additional focus and support as senior project scientist and chair of the Science Working Group for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Mather has been dividing his time in that role and serving as lead scientist in the Office of the Chief Scientist within the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington since April 2007.

"My priority now for JWST is entirely driven by the needs of the project. As the telescope progresses, we have numerous challenges ahead of us on the technical side that have to be addressed," Mather said. "However, despite the workload, I still plan to continue to serve in the Office of the Chief Scientist a few days a week until further notice. My decision is entirely unrelated to recent personnel changes at NASA Headquarters."

The Webb Telescope, the next step after the Hubble Space Telescope, is a large, infrared-optimized space telescope, scheduled for launch in 2013. It will find the first galaxies that formed in the early universe and peer through dusty clouds to see stars forming planetary systems. The telescope's instruments will be designed to work primarily in the infrared range of the electromagnetic spectrum, with some capability in the visible range. The telescope will have a large mirror, 21.3 feet in diameter and a sunshield the size of a tennis court. It will reside in an orbit about 1 million miles from Earth.

Mather is scheduled to give a plenary talk titled, "From the Big Bang to the Nobel Prize and on to the James Webb Space Telescope," at the SPIE Astronomical Telescopes and Instrumentation Symposium in Marseille, France, on 24 June.

The Hertz Foundation's mission is to build America's capacity for innovation by nurturing remarkable applied scientists and engineers who show the most promise to change the world.

Mather also received the George W. Goddard Award from SPIE in 2005. The award recognizes exceptional achievement in optical or photonic instrumentation for aerospace, atmospheric science, or astronomy.

An interview with John Mather from oemagazine, September 2005.