- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 3, 2006

Two space scientists with Maryland connections will share the 2006 Nobel Prize in physics, the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced yesterday.

John C. Mather, senior fellow at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, was named along with his colleague George F. Smoot for their work supporting the so-called “big bang” theory of the origin of the universe.

“I’ve always been excited to know, how did we get here?” said Mr. Mather, 60. “I wanted to know about the origin of life. This is my particular kind of contribution to this subject.”

Mr. Mather and Mr. Smoot’s research documented cosmic microwave background radiation. Big-bang theorists had pictured the universe after the big bang as a luminous body putting off this radiation across different wavelengths based on temperature, taking a shape known as blackbody radiation.

The laureates used NASA’s Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite, launched in 1989, to document the existence of the blackbody spectrum, which matched hypotheses perfectly. When they presented their findings at the 1990 American Astronomical Society meeting, they received a standing ovation.

“To my recollection, that was the first standing ovation ever at an AAS meeting,” said Ed Weiler, director of the Goddard Space Flight Center.

Mr. Mather has lived in the Washington, D.C., area for 30 years. Mr. Smoot, 61, commutes between his residences in Greenbelt and Berkeley, Calif., where he works at the University of California and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Mr. Mather said he was lying in bed yesterday morning when he received a phone call at 5:45 notifying him of the award.

After hearing the news, “I thought, ‘Well, I’d better sit up and wake up my wife,’” he said. As of 3 p.m., he had received at least 500 e-mails, his BlackBerry had crashed and he had turned off his cell phone.

“We knew it was important,” Mr. Mather said of his and Mr. Smoot’s discovery. “Now everybody knows it’s important.”

The NASA scientists’ research confirmed important theories about the origins of the universe, said Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist and cosmologist who directs the Center for Education and Research in Cosmology and Astrophysics at Case Western Reserve University.

“You have some discoveries that are unanticipated — completely unexpected,” he said. “This is not one of them.”

Mr. Krauss said the laureates’ research has allowed cosmology to become a precision science based on exact measurements, something cosmologists did not think possible. He said a Yale scientist “had this theorem that the universe was such that something would always get in the way of measuring fundamental constants,” he said. “Suddenly, [Mr. Mather and Mr. Smoot] demonstrated this tool existed. It changed everything.”

Mr. Mather is currently working on the James Webb Space Telescope project.

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