Dr. John C. Mather studies the universe while staying down-to-earth
By Reva G. Harris
Not all renowned people who happen to live in Hyattsville take an interest in our local nonprofit community newspaper. I recently spoke with a world-renowned Hyattsville resident, though, who connects with our community in a humble and supportive way. My conversation with Dr. John C. Mather ― astrophysicist, cosmologist, and 2006 Nobel Prize in physics laureate (he shared that honor with George Smoot) ― was down-to-earth and delightful.
John grew up on a research farm at Rutgers University, part of the university’s New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station, in Sussex County, N.J. “It was beautiful and isolating,” he said. “All of my childhood was spent reading, writing and thinking. My sister and I attended public schools. My parents gave us many opportunities. I became interested in science when I was 8 years old. My parents took me to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, and they bought me books about Darwin, Galileo and George Washington Carver ― I had a decent introduction to science.
“It was a natural progression for me to go to college,” he continued. John attended Swarthmore College and majored in physics. “I turned out to be one of the few students at Swarthmore who really liked physics.”
John was set to attend graduate school at Princeton University. “My friends at Princeton did not like it there because there were no women,” he noted. “Another friend said, ‘Come to U.C. Berkeley. It’s a nice place, with women.’ After I got to Berkeley, I wrote Princeton and said, ‘I’m not coming because you don’t have women.’ The next year Princeton allowed women to enroll.” John could take credit for being a champion for women’s equality, but he demurs. “Honestly,” he said, “it was really a selfish purpose.”
While in graduate school at Berkeley, John had to choose a thesis topic. “I asked around for ideas. Someone said, in a random conversation, ‘We want to measure Big Bang radiation.’ I worked with that group for four years. The instrument we designed did not function.” Although his thesis project failed, John did receive approval to write about the work and design for the instrument to complete his doctoral studies.
After receiving his doctorate in 1974, John got a job with NASA, in New York. “My office was located near Tom’s Restaurant [the diner in the TV show ‘Seinfeld’]”, he stated. “It was an exciting year.” John was on a team of seven who wrote a small book proposing to redo his thesis project.
John also met Jane Hauser in 1974. He explained, “I was a young scientist in New York City, and Jane was a ballet teacher. We met while taking a class on reevaluation counseling. It’s a course on how to listen and help another person. There was one rule: ‘Do not date the people in your class.’” Mather violated that rule when he moved to Greenbelt, in 1976, to work at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. In 1979, Jane moved to Maryland — they were married in 1980, by a minister friend. “In attendance were 80 scientists and 30 dancers,” he said.
Finding the right home to purchase proved to be a challenge. “I am a tall guy, at 6 feet 5 inches,” John explained. “We looked at about 50 houses. Sometimes I would bump my head on the ceilings. We almost gave up, but we remembered a house located in Hyattsville. I wanted to see if it was for sale ― it was not. We slipped a note to ask the owners if they would sell; they did. It’s a 1938 Georgian-style brick cube with windows on all sides. The neighborhood is like living in the country. It has basically stayed the same, except our street was paved about 20 years ago. I love my neighbors. I have taken some of them to visit my NASA laboratory. I wish I had more time to spend with them, but I just don’t see myself retiring anytime soon.”
At Goddard, John was a member of a team of engineers and scientists appointed to develop the COBE (Cosmic Background Explorer) satellite. “This fall will be the 32nd anniversary [Nov. 18, 1989] of the COBE launch,” he said. “It was beautiful.” John explained that the COBE satellite measured cosmic background radiation. “We confirmed that the Big Bang theory was right,” he added.
Mather reminisced about receiving the Nobel Prize: “When I heard that I was receiving the Nobel Prize, I said to myself, ‘Don’t mess up. Everyone is watching you.’ Winning did not change much about my life. In 2007, my wife and I established the John and Jane Mather Foundation for Science and the Arts. We gave away all of the money to other foundations that already knew what to do. We sponsored choreographers and dancers, and we gave scholarships to scientists and engineers. … Lots of brilliant people had the opportunity to travel and show off their talents to the world.
“I worked hard, and I had a lot of luck. However, these discoveries are team driven. It felt weird when I know 1,500 people made it [COBE] happen. In the book, ‘The Very First Light’ [written with John Boslough], I list those people.”
Since 1995, John has worked as senior project scientist on the James Webb Space Telescope, which is scheduled to be launched in November 2021. “The hope is that we will be able to understand how stars and galaxies formed right after the universe began to expand,” he said.
At the close of our conversation, John discussed the politics of science. “I think the issue is important,” he noted. “Congressman Bill Foster [IL-11] is the only member of Congress who has a Ph.D. in physics. He [Foster] told me his story. I told him, ‘I would like more people like you running for Congress. I can sponsor undergraduate students through the American Institute for Physics [AIP] summer intern program to work on Capitol Hill.’” (The AIP interns work on congressional committees to help shape public science policy.) “We [scientists] try to work out answers to life’s great challenges like what do we do when it gets too hot, or when we run out of coal or oil,” he noted. “That’s where we come in. Science is behind it.”