Essential Leadership: Nobel-winning Mather is motivated by a fascination with the universe
Fascinated by the heavens from childhood, John C. Mather now helps scientists understand the early universe.
05 October 2006
This article was originally published in the September 2005 issue of oemagazine.
"I think people don't have much concept of where we are in history," says John C. Mather, who has a much better idea than most through his studies of cosmology. "We make plans that are good for a few days or weeks or years, with little thought to what comes far in the future."
John C. Mather and the lion in front of the New York Public Library.
Mather, Senior Project Scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), is the recipient of the 2005 George W. Goddard Award from SPIE. He was immersed in science from an early age, with his mother a school-teacher and his father a researcher in dairy cattle genetics. The books they read aloud to him included biographies of Darwin and Galileo. It was a trip to New York and the Museum of Natural History at age eight that sparked his interest in astronomy.
"We went to see the planetarium show, and we bought a telescope to look at Mars, which was at closest approach in 1954," he says. "So I was hooked! Needless to say, I didn't know what it would take to be a scientist, but it was very exciting to imagine."
Mather is still dealing with things that are exciting to imagine—cosmology and the origins of the universe.
He notes that a key moment in his career came from meeting his PhD advisor, Paul Richards, at the University of California, Berkeley. Prior to that, Mather wanted to be a high-energy particle physicist like his hero Richard Feynman.
In 1974, as a young post-doc at NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (New York, NY), he proposed a mission, subsequently named the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE), to make definitive measurements of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation and cosmic infrared background (CIB) radiation.
The proposal to NASA included three instruments, according to Michael G. Hauser, who hired Mather to pursue the project. The Far Infrared Absolute Spectrophotometer was to make a precise measurement of the CMB from 500 µm to 1 cm wavelength and search for the CIB at submillimeter wavelengths. The differential microwave radiometers would search for large angular-scale anisotropy in the CMB brightness, and the Diffuse Infrared Background Experiment would search for CIB at wavelengths of 1 to 240 µm.
"The COBE mission accomplished all of its prime objectives spectacularly well, and yielded major cosmological discoveries from all three instruments," Hauser writes in his letter in support of Mather for the award. "From inception to final publication, John Mather's initiative, commitment, scientific and technical brilliance, and leadership were essential."
"I needed to know something about almost every topic in engineering, from materials properties to cryogenic engineering to mechanical, optical, thermal, and electronic engineering" Mather says. "It's a lot of fun to try to keep up with and understand the professionals who really make things happen in these areas."
Now his attentions are turned toward a more massive effort, the JWST. As lead scientist, he has worked with all of the science teams since the project's inception in 1995 to define the needed observatory capabilities and to imagine future uses for them.
"We had to find that particular combination of scientific capabilities that would match the scientific questions that would be important, and combine that with what might be possible for engineers to build," he says. "We reached out and said, 'Build this giant segmented telescope that can be cooled to about 40 K, make it far bigger than the Hubble, and cover infrared wavelengths from 0.6 to 28 µm, and we will be able to do things that no other planned observatory could touch.'" Mather describes his role as "making sure that this grand engineering project really delivers the science that it promises."
The JWST has recently been the subject of congressional scrutiny, as delays and cost overruns have threatened the size, and perhaps even the completion, of the project. Mather says that "times were tough for the COBE, too." It had to be rebuilt for a Delta rocket launch after the 1986 Challenger explosion. "Also, COBE was so close to impossible that a constant give and take with the engineering team was required every day as we worked to find solutions to new problems."
The scale of the JWST is another challenge—it's "way bigger and I can't keep up with everybody," he says. But one significant change from the COBE days is that engineering drawings that once had to be done with pencils are now created and simulated in the computer before a project is built.
Mather looks forward to building on the knowledge that COBE and subsequent research efforts have accumulated.
"We've got a pretty good measurement of the present quantities of dark matter and dark energy, but we don't know much about their history, or about extrapolating our future," he says. "We have plenty of explanations and predictions about them, but we have to decide which might be right. At the moment we are in the classical condition that 'we need more data.'"
Mather sees studying our origins in space and time as an important look ahead. "Astronomers say we have another two billion years before Earth is too hot to live on," he says. "If we could begin to engage this question, we might be guided to a suitable stewardship for our planet, and it might look a little different from the plans that are being made today."