The Nobel Prize Committee announced Tuesday that NASA scientist and Goddard Fellow Dr. John C. Mather is this year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize for Physics. Mather is currently serving as senior project scientist for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope program.
Mather shares the prize with George Smoot of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif. They received the award for their work that helped cement the Big Bang theory of the universe and deepened our understanding of the origin of stars and galaxies.
“I was thrilled and amazed when I found out we won the Nobel Prize,” Mather said. “The dedicated and talented women and men of the COBE team collaborated to produce the science results being recognized. This is truly such a rare and special honor.”
Mather and Smoot’s work was based on measurements performed with NASA’s Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite, launched in 1989. Together, the scientists could observe the universe in its early stages about 380,000 years after it was born. Ripples in the light they detected helped demonstrate how galaxies came together over time.
NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said, “I am thrilled to hear that Dr. John Mather has been selected to receive the Nobel Prize in Physics. John would be a world-class scientist no matter where he had chosen to spend his career, but we at NASA are enormously proud that he has chosen to spend it with us.”
Dr. Ed Weiler, the Director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md., added, “This is a tremendous accomplishment for John and for the COBE team. It is also important to note that COBE was built entirely ‘in-house,’ and the fact that a NASA civil servant has won the biggest science award possible demonstrates that world-class research is happening here at NASA.”
COBE was built at Goddard to measure microwave and infrared light from the early universe. COBE determined that the cosmic microwave background, which is essentially the afterglow of the Big Bang, has a temperature of approximately minus 455 degrees Fahrenheit. This observation matched the predictions of the hot Big Bang theory and indicated that nearly all of the radiant energy of the universe was released within the first year after the Big Bang.
Also, COBE discovered slight temperature variations of approximately 10 parts per million in this relatively uniform light. These variations pointed to density differences which, through gravity over the course of billions of years, gave rise to the stars, galaxies and hierarchal structure we see today.
Steven Hawking a decade ago, independent of the COBE team, called these variations “the most important discovery of the century, if not of all time.”
Alfred Nobel, the wealthy Swedish industrialist who endowed the prizes, left guidelines in his will for the selection committee which cited “the prize should be given to those who shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind” and “have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics.”
The 2006 Nobel Laureates will gather in Stockholm on Dec. 10 to receive their Nobel Prize Medal, diploma and monetary award from King Carl Gustav XVI of Sweden.
For Mather’s biographical information, visit: