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Scientific rock star visits UNM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — In 2006, John Mather took his place among the who’s who of the world of physics – Roentgen, the Curies, Marconi, Fermi, Einstein.

Mather received the Nobel Prize for physics, an award he shared with a colleague, George Smoot, for their work in developing the Cosmic Background Explorer Satellite, called COBE.

The cosmologist paid a visit to the University of New Mexico this week, making several appearances on campus and talking about his latest project, the James Webb Space Telescope. It is scheduled to launch into orbit in 2018 and will complement and advance the ground-breaking work of the Hubble Space Telescope, launched in 1990.

A big difference is that the JWST will peer into space a million miles from Earth and be more than a telescope.

A huge observatory, it will give mankind the opportunity to look farther back in time than ever before, probing the galaxies that began forming in the immediate aftermath of the Big Bang, and at the same time delving deep into the mysterious clouds from which stars and planetary configurations – perhaps similar to the solar system – are still being born.

John Mather.

John Mather.

Mather’s excitement about the JWST is palpable. He talked about it to a group of about 30 high school students and their science teachers Wednesday evening in a courtyard just outside UNM’s Keller Hall. They greeted him like the scientific rock star he is, posing for pictures, shyly asking about his work at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, seeking his autograph on glossy color photos of the JWST. Mather was happy to oblige.

Besides COBE and the JWST and Hubble, he talked about his early life in rural New Jersey and an excitement for science that started in about the fourth grade.

“I don’t know how that happened,” he said. “My parents read books to me about Galileo and Darwin, and took me to the museum in New York to see the dinosaurs. I guess that started it.”

But even before then, when he was about 3, he had begun removing doorknobs at home. With a grin, he asked the high-schoolers, “Did you take the house apart, too?”

He was a good student, he said, one who would read on the hourlong bus ride to and from school every day. By the time high school came along, he was well into astronomy and physics. Then, one summer, he got a chance to study quantum mechanics at Cornell University. He was hooked.

Marco Valenzuela, a 17-year-old senior at South Valley Academy, said the opportunity to meet Mather was “pretty great, definitely special. It’s not very common that you even hear about someone with a Nobel Prize, much less get a chance to meet someone.”

Mather and Smoot received the great honor for their work in developing COBE. The satellite measured the diffuse infrared and microwave radiation from the earliest moments of the universe, 13.8 billion years ago. Launched in 1989, its discoveries just about confirmed what scientists had suspected for decades, that the universe did begin with a Big Bang.

Following the talk in the courtyard, Mather moved inside to a jammed Keller Hall to discuss COBE, the JWST and Hubble in greater depth.

He was about 30 when COBE got underway and he was thrust into a leadership role. But, he noted, 1,500 people worked on the satellite.

“Nobody does it by themselves,” he told the crowd. “Not even Einstein did it himself.”

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