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An Interview With John Mather
Dr. John Mather and his wife, Jane, at the Nobel Ceremony.  Credit:  The Nobel Foundation 2006 Dr. Mather with his wife, Jane, at the Nobel Ceremony in Sweden. Credit: The Nobel Foundation 2006 Elizabeth M. Jarrell got some insight from Goddard’s Dr. John C. Mather into the man behind the Nobel Prize.

Winning the Prize

Elizabeth M. Jarrell (EMJ): What were your first thoughts on hearing that you had won?

John C. Mather (JCM): Wow! Our team will be very proud! My life has just changed completely! I have a new challenge and a new opportunity. I am now a public figure. I may never have another quiet moment.

EMJ: What were your wife’s first words to you?

JCM: To tell you the truth I no longer remember what was first. But I do know she was wondering what she would wear to meet the King.

EMJ: So now that some time has passed, what are your first thoughts when someone mentions that you won the Nobel Prize?

JCM: I still want people to know that it was our whole COBE (Cosmic Background Explorer) team that earned that prize! Scientists, engineers, technicians (they’re the ones who actually put the COBE together), the entire team.


EMJ: You have said that Mike Hauser was your main mentor and one of your greatest heroes. Why? What did he teach you about being a mentor and a hero?

JCM: I have tremendous admiration for his way of thinking. He is capable of seeing the big picture and then zooming in to check that the details are okay too. He is scrupulous about making sure that people are well organized and that they get proper recognition and credit for their work. He is generous with his time and he is willing to put aside his own research to enable other people to do great things with him. And on a personal note he is always somebody I can ask for advice.

Mike’s mentoring was basically to give me a huge job and check in with me about what I needed to keep on going, to check my thinking. He was always available when I needed to ask a question and he didn’t try to do my job for me. And of course mentoring is also done by example, but it’s hard to capture the particular ways of being that get absorbed.

Dr. John C. MatherPhoto of Dr. John Mather. Credit: NASA EMJ: What is the difference between being a mentor and being a hero?

JCM: A mentor enables a person to achieve. A hero shows what achievement looks like.

EMJ: How do you choose whom you will mentor directly?

JCM: They turn up and ask! And I say yes.

Speakers Circuit

EMJ: Are you now asked to give more public lectures and in more distant places?

JCM: Yes, almost every day I get a request to speak somewhere.

EMJ: With all these requests to lecture, how do you decide which lectures to deliver?

JCM: If it’s within an hour of home I usually say yes, otherwise I have to have a personal reason to want to go. If my wife wants to accompany me, that’s a real plus.

Continued Motivation

EMJ: How have the additional demands for mentoring and lecturing impacted your work as a physicist?

JCM: My work at NASA has always been about team efforts and so it’s intrinsically about mentoring. I have been blessed with some brilliant colleagues who were able to take on huge challenges without a lot of guidance.

EMJ: Now that you have achieved the ultimate success in your field, what motivates you to continue working?

JCM: I don’t know about Olympic athletes but I don’t think any of my scientific colleagues are motivated by trying to win or being the best. We do need recognition so we can be chosen to pursue our ideas, when we write proposals or conceive of new missions. But the competition is mostly not personal. It’s more about the pleasure of pursuit, the satisfaction of discovery, and the opportunity to make a real contribution to knowledge. And I think many of the same factors apply to all the members of our team. We didn’t work so hard to “be the best,” we did it because we loved our work and it was worth doing.

The Mather Foundation

EMJ: You received a significant amount of Nobel Prize money. You and your wife used most of the award money to fund the John and Jane Mather Foundation for Science and the Arts, which, together with The Henry Foundation, Inc., funded the John Mather Nobel Scholarships. The award includes the title “John Mather Nobel Scholar” and a $3,000 scientific travel grant good for two years. Can you please tell us about these foundations and scholarships? Why did you establish them? What is your overall goal for each of them?

JCM: Our aim was to give something back to the Goddard community. I never felt that the money was really mine; it was the team’s money, and I thought about what they would want to do with it. The young people who have received these scholarships were summer interns at Goddard, and they have used the funds to visit graduate schools, to go to professional meetings, and so forth. But I think the recognition has great value for them too—it tells the world that they have accomplished something of value, and it helps open doors for them.

Nobel Laureate John C. Mather shows some of the earliest data from the NASA Cosmic Background Explorer Satellite.Nobel Laureate John C. Mather shows some of the earliest data from the NASA Cosmic Background Explorer Satellite during a press conference held at the NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC, USA. Credit: NASA EMJ: What have some of the recipients accomplished?

JCM: That’s a pretty big story. The recipients already accomplished great things at Goddard, that’s why they are recipients. But I am not involved in the selection process; I just get to meet the winners.

EMJ: You also used part of your award to endow a Hertz Foundation Fellowship to support cosmologists and applied scientists in part because you received a Hertz Foundation Fellowship early in your career. Can you tell us about this Foundation and who have been some of the recipients?

JCM: The Fannie and John Hertz Foundation gave me a graduate school fellowship 40 years ago that enabled me to devote full time to my research program. It was also a competitive thing that said people really believed I was part of “America’s Got Talent” in the science world. So it made a huge difference to the way I viewed myself and my future. The Hertz Foundation was started to help nurture America’s top scientists and engineers, with a specific interest in defense of the country. So I wanted to give back a bit. Our donation was matched by Ray Sidney of Google, so it is now an endowed fellowship.

The first student to receive it is Floris van Breugel, now an engineering student at CalTech working on insect-like flight. He’s extraordinarily creative and it’s a privilege to follow his work. He’s also a brilliant nature photographer. Google his name and you’ll see some of his work.


EMJ: You have been married to your wife Jane for almost 30 years. You have said that you were initially impressed by her because she was a ballet teacher but was also taking computer and math classes as an undergraduate. How would you describe a well-rounded education? How important is a well-rounded education?

JCM:I think a well-rounded education keeps us from being bored and boring! And Jane’s education is totally different from mine. She had real-life education, like being a waitress in a Hungarian tavern, that I have never experienced. She worked in hospitals, art studios, the Federal Reserve Bank, and the Art Institute of Chicago, and she painted shower curtains and made store displays. And she’s been on stage with the Bolshoi ballet, which I can only imagine. She also introduced me to the fascination of foreign travel.

EMJ: You have also said that you met your wife during one of many personal growth experiences that you undertook as part of your emotional education. What do you mean by emotional education? Can you tell us about some of these personal growth experiences?

JCM: I grew up in a rather isolated rural setting with few friends up close, and essentially nobody outside my immediate small family to talk with. So my strategy for survival was to wait until the day that I could escape and see the real world. Also, my family was not obviously affectionate, and certainly did not show a lot of interest in how other people were feeling. So a lot of things that would be second nature to people growing up in a large talkative family were not natural for me. I had to learn to be more open with people and to know how to show that I was interested in them.

In college I was a bit worried that even the faculty didn’t seem to know how to get on—quite a lot of them were getting divorced. So I began looking around for things to do for my own emotional education. When I got to grad school in Berkeley, I went to an encounter group, and later on to the EST training, which was new, and I was introduced to that experience. I learned a lot there, especially about the value of not making excuses for myself or for other people, and I got to see that I had a lot more power in personal relationships than I had realized. Then I went to my postdoc position in New York and saw an old girlfriend from college. She was teaching Re-Evaluation Counseling (Co-Counseling) so I took courses in that too. That can also be a very powerful emotional experience that loosens up one’s viewpoint about other people and one’s willingness to be open to them. My sister was inspired enough about this subject that she also became a teacher of it.

EMJ: : You enjoy travelling to see how ancient civilizations accomplished their engineering feats. Where have you been? What engineering feats most impressed you and why?

JCM: We’ve been to Italy, where one can see a slice of history from Pompeii to the glories of the Roman Empire to the Renaissance, and in Florence we even saw Galileo’s telescope. We’ve been to Greece and to Egypt, where we’ve seen the Pyramids and the temples and the museums of ancient life. We’ve seen the Great Wall in China. We’ve seen Ephesus in Turkey, where we stood in the ancient Forum and the actors’ changing rooms in the theater, and we walked down the main street and saw the restored library and the condominium shops. We’ve seen the standing stones in Brittany and we’ve seen Stonehenge and the mound from 3,000 B.C. at Newgrange in Ireland. We’ve seen Samarkand and Bukhara on the Silk Road in central Asia, and we’ve been to the five royal capitals of ancient Morocco. We’ve been to southern Africa where our species may have originated among the lions and the elephants. I wish there were tourist guides for people who want to know how the ancients built things. In my next life, maybe I’ll write some of those books.

EMJ: You said in your Nobel Prize autobiography that a recurring theme for you is that “life is a team sport, and it matters who’s on the team, and which team(s) one chooses to be on.” Can you elaborate? Also, can you discuss how you choose who is on your team and which team you are on?

JCM: I think one is on many teams at the same time, and it’s not so obvious which ones have been chosen and which are accidents of history. For instance, I was born into the team of people who do science―my dad and my mother’s dad were both scientists. But at NASA it’s very clear that our work is organized around projects, and we work together.

The COBE team built itself in many ways—I wasn’t the one to do the recruiting, for instance—but the idea and the challenge enabled all of us to recruit top talent. When we explained we were going to measure the Big Bang, people wanted to be on the team. One man joined our team when he could have earned twice as much working on a classified program.

And when we started up the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) project, again the idea was attractive, we had support from the very top of NASA, and brilliant people wanted to work with us. Then of course real managers (not me) got to choose people and assign their tasks and make plans. These days on the JWST project, people walk down the hall and hear laughter coming out of senior staff meetings, and they say, “How can I work on that project?” I really enjoy the people who come to work with us.


EMJ: What do you do if you find that certain people do not work well on your team? Or that you are on the wrong team?

JCM: I haven’t had to do much of that. Charlie Pellerin’s book, “How NASA Builds Teams,” explains how important it is to have people in the right place for their personalities. Some of us are better equipped to deal with some parts of a project than others. If a person is not in the right place in an organization, he or she won’t be happy and neither will the organization.

EMJ: You said that one of your “biggest thrills” is “trying out wild ideas and hunting for ways to go far beyond anything ever done before.” Why? Can you explain what goes through your head during this time?

JCM: The hunt for the eureka moment, the light bulb going off, the sudden enlightenment, some way to build new equipment that could make a spectacular measurement, has always been one of my greatest pleasures. Getting the universe itself to yield its secrets is even harder, but finding a way to make a measurement is a big step. When I was a sophomore in high school, sometimes I might lie awake all night thinking about how to prove a theorem in geometry. Finding a way to make a new measurement has the same kind of challenge and the same kind of reward. It’s like getting to the end of a very tough crossword puzzle, except this time one is the author of the puzzle as well as the solver.

The Future

EMJ: What do you say to young people to inspire excitement in science?

JCM: At the World Science Festival, we said, “Science Rocks!!” There’s a huge pleasure in working on puzzles that really matter to humanity, where a discovery or a calculation can open doors to a new reality, where there’s a chance to find something to put in the library of human knowledge, that may stand for all time. And of course, there’s also the chance to work with amazing people, wonderful friends and colleagues. People picture scientists as loners, but these days science is a very social thing.

EMJ: In thanking those who helped you, you said they maintained your “faith in humanity despite all the disappoints that happen.” What would you say to a young person to help them maintain their faith in humanity?

JCM: It’s important to know that all the accomplishments and all the challenges we face all come from the same source, the unlimited imagination and the unlimited possibilities. And each of us has something. I would want to see what that young person really wants to do, what he or she is really in love with. With that, there is no limit.

But every problem has a solution, which leads to another problem. It’s the nature of life and the universe. That’s another reason why scientists will always have something to do. So I’m not worried, even though I am well aware that most species on this planet have become extinct in rather short times, millions of years. Kids growing up today have so much to tell us, and so much energy. And their kids will too.

Elizabeth M. Jarrell