Nobel laureate to explain mysteries of universe
By Lou Fancher
Having won the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics for confirming the Big Bang theory, John Mather might put his feet up and rest on his astronomical laurels.
Instead, the 68-year-old senior astrophysicist and project scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, continues to steer his childhood fascination with science along an active trajectory.
With an undergraduate degree in physics from Swarthmore College, a Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, and numerous fellowships and prizes lining up like stars in a constellation, Mather brings his knowledge to Livermore on April 16.
His presentation, "From the Big Bang to Now: Observing the Universe with the James Webb Space Telescope," will describe NASA's largest-ever telescope, planned to launch in 2018 and projected to surpass the Hubble Telescope by leaps and bounds. Able to observe and measure the cosmic microwave background spectrum -- the universe's oldest light emitted immediately after the Big Bang -- the Webb telescope is sensitive enough to measure the heat of bumblebees as far away as the moon is from Earth. Boasting a 6.5-meter primary mirror (six times larger in area than the Hubble's) and an overall size so large it will leave Earth folded into the nose of an Ariane 5 rocket and deploy remotely once it has traveled about 1 million miles from Earth (Hubble is a mere 347 miles away), the telescope bears an $8 billion price tag.
If Webb lives up to the expectations, the information it reveals about the universe's origins could be priceless. Because the images will be free of the distortions caused by earth's atmosphere, Mather says Webb will see the first stars and galaxies with unprecedented accuracy as it looks inside dust clouds and analyzes the chemical compositions of planets formed when the universe was created.
"I like to speculate about how far humanity can go in terms of exploring," Mather says.
From the fossils he found while building mud and pebble river dams during his childhood to his father's long-ago Sears Roebuck telescope that was too weak to properly view Mars to a five-tube shortwave Heathkit radio he once assembled to the Nobel Prize-winning work he did with co-awardee George Smoot on the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE), Mather has been transfixed by questions about evolution and the universe.
"Is life rare or common? How did black holes get started? What's the dark energy? Are there other planets like Earth? Are we alone?" he asks.
"John has the unique gift of not merely solving hard technical problems, but of reminding us why we ask them in the first place," says Jay Davis, president of Hertz Foundation. Mather won one of the Livermore-based organization's coveted fellowships in 1970 and later established a Hertz fellowship with proceeds from his Nobel Prize. Davis says Mather is inspiring new technologies while motivating present and future astronomers.
"A whole new infrastructure will be required," Mather admits, about the robotics, heat-resistant materials, fuel transportation systems and communication capabilities that will be necessary to repair or deliver materials to remote telescopes like Webb.
"Currently, we don't have the astronaut capability to go up there," he says.
Effective teams for large-scale projects like Webb must include people with every kind of personality and skill imaginable, he says, naming less-intuitive categories like finance and human resource operations, along with the expected engineering and math.
Dian Callaghan, board director for the series, says Mather's explanations of the mysteries of the universe were shared last year in Livermore with a standing-room-only, invited audience. Pleased that the larger venue will allow more people to hear him speak, she says, "John's fascinating story affirms that with enough perseverance, anything is truly possible."