2007 Paul A. Volcker Career Achievement

John Mather

Confirmed the Big Bang Theory to earn the Nobel Prize in Physics.

The American Astronomical Society (AAS) is a tough group to impress. You would have to do something pretty remarkable to get a standing ovation from that crowd, something like perhaps…maybe…confirming the Big Bang theory. Turns out enhancing humankind’s understanding of the origin of the universe will, in fact, do the trick, as Dr. John Mather proved when he released his findings on the topic to the AAS in 1990 and prompted a roomful of the nation’s top scientists to jump out of their seats. In 2006, another esteemed organization took notice of Dr. Mather’s work—the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. They presented Dr. Mather the Nobel Prize for Physics, making him the first NASA employee to earn this honor. What’s hard to believe is that with his current work on the Webb telescope, the best of Dr. Mather’s professional accomplishments may still be yet to come.

The Big Bang theory originated when scientists observed that objects were moving away from the earth, leading observers to believe that the universe was in a constantly expanding state. The theory was that this expansion was set into motion from a state of intense heat, filled with an incredibly strong radiation. If this theory were true, the universe would be filled with relic radiation. In 1964, cosmologists discovered that relic radiation—cosmic microwave background radiation (CMB)—prompting the Big Bang to surpass the “steady state” theory as the generally accepted best theory for the origin of the universe.

Studying the temperature of CMB had the potential to show that this radiation was emitted from the Big Bang. Unfortunately, the Earth’s atmosphere absorbs CMB, so confirmation from earthbound research proved difficult. In 1974, NASA initiated the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) project to conduct space-based research, and Dr. John Mather would be the driving force of this effort. He not only was the project scientist, he actually designed one of the COBE satellite’s key instruments in his role as the Principal Investigator. The COBE satellite would finally be launched in November 1989, and this project, which took 15 years to develop, delivered historic results after only nine minutes of observations. COBE measured the wavelength distribution of the cosmic microwave background radiation and confirmed the link to the Big Bang.

For an encore, Dr. Mather is currently the senior project scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope. In this capacity, he oversees NASA’s current flagship telescope project, leading a diverse team of scientists and engineers from around the world in this effort to build the most sophisticated telescope in history. The telescope is scheduled to be completed in 2013, and it is expected to be a significant improvement over the aging Hubble telescope. Thanks to the Webb, Dr. Mather’s work will continue to unlock many of the mysteries of the universe, decades after his confirmation of the Big Bang. It was actually his work on the Webb telescope that Time magazine featured when it named Dr. Mather to the “Time 100,” the magazine’s annual list of the “people who shape our world.”

Dr. Mather recently took a new post, serving as the head of the newly created Office of the Chief Scientist at NASA headquarters. As NASA’s chief scientist, Dr. Mather assists the associate administrator with setting flight mission and research budget priorities for all NASA science programs. In addition, the office works to enhance discussions with the national and international science community.

Dr. Mather was a natural choice for this newly created senior position at NASA, because he is one of the most admired and respected employees in the agency’s history. He has been a mentor to many at the Goddard Space Flight Center, and he is renowned for his unselfishness and disposition for going the extra mile to do things right. He is deeply committed to NASA’s mission and has a gift for convincing others to develop a similar passion for public service. He has always been able to motivate his colleagues that if they come to NASA, they will have to opportunity to work on Nobel Prize-class science, one more theory Dr. John Mather proved to be true.