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Nobel Laureate in Physics Inspires Young Scientists

Dr. John C. Mather

John C. Mather shared the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics for work with the COBE satellite, which provided evidence supporting the Big Bang theory of the universe.

December 8, 2010 –John C. Mather, a Nobel Laureate in physics, told a Georgetown audience Dec. 7 that astronomers are “looking for the origins of everything.”

“We start with the Bing Bang,” he said. “We’ve got its picture measured with the Cosmic Background Explorer [COBE] satellite, we have ideas about how the galaxies are born, how they change with time, how stars are born within galaxies, how planets are formed around stars and then finally, the even bigger mystery – how do things get to be alive.”

He joked that astronomers have the easiest part of the equation, as “the mystery of life is still a considerable mystery.”

Looking Backward

Mather, who served as project scientist for the COBE satellite, shared the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics with his colleague, George Smoot of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif.

The scientists won the prize for their work with COBE, whose instruments provided evidence supporting the Big Bang theory of the universe.

“We see things as they were when light was emitted,” he said. “And then it's taken a certain long period of time for light to get here. … If you look at things far enough away, you see them as they were.”

Astronomers can see back in time 15 billion years, he explained.

Future Aims

Mather said he and other astronomers are excited about NASA’s new James Webb Space Telescope, which is expected to launch in 2014.

“We discovered 15 years ago that the next great opportunity was to study infrared light,” said Mather, senior project scientist for the telescope program.

The new infrared telescope will allow astronomers to see new things in the universe.

Infinite Universe

The Nobel Laureate noted in his talk that even Einstein was wrong about the origins of the universe.

Einstein claimed the universe was no longer expanding but later considered that theory to be one of his biggest blunders, Mather said.

It is more appropriate, the astronomer said, to consider the universe as “infinite in every direction,” expanding and at the same time being pulled back together by gravity.

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