Lessons from Laureates to Stoke Curiosity, Spur Collaboration, and Ignite Imagination in Your Life and Career


John Mather: The Collaborator

John Mather

2006 Nobel Prize in Physics
"for their discovery of the blackbody form and anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background radiation."

  • How did John Mather first become interested in cosmology?
  • In graduate school, John decided he wanted to be like Richard Feynman and discover the secrets of quantum mechanics.
  • John spoke to a few faculty members and found there was a project measuring the cosmic microwave background.
    • This was five years after the discovery of the CMB.
  • He then worked on a project measuring the CMB and discovered that, while it worked, it was difficult and not very interesting.
    • "So then my thesis advisor, Paul Richards, went on a sabbatical and he came back from Britain with a concept for a balloon-born instrument that could measure the spectrum of the cosmic microwave background radiation. And it could do it a lot better than we could ever do it on the ground. So we worked on that for a while. And finally, we got tired of working on it and fixing it and we said, well, it's time to go try it. We took it down to Texas to the balloon base there and we launched it and it didn't work. Paul let me finish my thesis describing the non-working flight hardware and the not very interesting balloon-based experiment." - John Mather
  • After that, John was off to New York to work at NASA.
    • He was originally going to work on molecular astronomy with radio telescopes.
      • After he'd been there about six months, NASA said, 'It's been five years since the moon landing, what are we going to do now?'
  • NASA was asking scientists what they wanted to do next.
    • "So we got a call for proposals and I said, Boston, my thesis project failed. We should try it in outer space. So I thought, well, this isn't going to work, but we might as well try it. So we wrote a little proposal and nothing much happened for a while, but it was clearly interesting for some people. A couple of years later, NASA said, yeah, this is a serious idea. We're going to start up a study at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, where I still am." - John Mather
  • This was in 1976.
    • A lot happened between then and launch, but the project did work.
  • The official launch was in 1989 and right away they got their first, famous results.
    • Within a few weeks, they had a spectrum of the cosmic background radiation that was much better than anything they could have acquired on Earth.
      • "Being in space is good. And so I got a standing ovation when I showed my chart to the astronomical society and, Oh my golly, I guess this is really important. Myself, my perspective had been, well, my job is just to get it right. I wasn't even thinking about whether it was important. Just got to get it right." - John Mather
  • Now they had a measurement of the initial conditions of the universe and the spatial structure and the temperature.
    • "I thought, well, this is way too complex. My theoretical friends are never going to figure this out, but actually, they did pretty quickly. They settled on the equations that should describe this process. And they were able to make a very good model that explained everything we saw." - John Mather
  • When they gathered more data from additional experiments and sent up two more satellites, everything fit together beautifully.
  • How was John influenced by his father and other scientific mentors? 
    • "Well, I'd say the most direct influence people have had on me is similar to what people said about David Wilkinson. He said 'To get students, I give them really hard problems. Maybe impossible problems. Don't tell them that they're impossible and let them figure them out.' And so I have taken on really hard problems and they've gradually yielded bit by bit so that we could actually build a COBE satellite and even the James Webb Space Telescope. So our whole community has been doing this bit by bit, and we've been inching forward to make better equipment to make our measurements that would have been completely imaginary." - John Mather
  • What does John think of brilliant people who hold heterodox views?
    • "Well, I usually don't think it's worth arguing because people that have made up their minds have their own reasons. It would be interesting to ask, well, why do you still believe this when we have this other evidence?" - John Mather
  • Does John think we can ever have unanimity in science? Is it something we should even strive for?
    • "I'm not saying nothing would make people happier than to discover that we've all been wrong about something, and we've all got something to do, and that we've made an error of some sort. So I don't think we're stuck in some kind of groupthink the way some of my other colleagues think. I believe we are very busy pursuing the possibility that we were all wrong. Each scientist has to make some judgment about where the payoff is likely to be. So if you're looking where it's pretty unlikely that you're going to find a discovery, then well, after a while you might get tired." - John Mather
  • How does John handle attacks as a scientist?
    • "Well, there are lots of different jobs in science and my job, as I looked at it, was to build some equipment and go measure something. And the interpretation [of that evidence] is some other person's job. So when I say this is what we found, I think it's right and we've done the best we can. We've got a big team of scientists. We all look backwards and forwards all over everything... And then plenty of other people say, well, no, that can't be right. So people certainly have strong opinions about the interpretation." - John Mather
  • Did John receive special training on how to manage and build a team?
    • "Well, I wish I could tell you when I got to Goddard space flight center here in Greenville, I was only 30 years old. I said, 'I do not know how to do any of this!' I'm gonna go to my meetings with my fellow scientists and engineers, and we'll work together on this, but I didn't feel like I was the best person to manage this project. Don't even ask me. I had no idea you had to do that. So I hired professional scientists and engineers, who are my supervisors and my mentors. It was the engineers who really did the hard job of figuring out how to make this thing work... And so basically they knew how to do this stuff that people think I did. And then yeah, sharing the credit and then making the team resilient enough to overcome obstacles that are out of your control." - John Mather
  • How did John and his team overcome the fallout from the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster?
    • "We were very fortunate. Some of our managers said we'll find a way. We didn't get this far to give up. That's how everybody felt. So there were a few people who said, well, actually the shuttle that we were going to launch the COBE on just wasn't really that good in the first place. So let's get a different rocket. So our deputy project manager said, I'll find one. It was quite a significant accomplishment to find one when they weren't available. And so as it turned out, it had to be assembled from parts that had been lying around because it was not actually a whole rocket available. But people knew that the project we were building was important enough to be worth trying. And long before people realized, if we could solve this problem, the COBE satellite could be the first thing that we launched for science after the Challenger." - John Mather
  • How does it feel to work at an organization like NASA?
    • "Oh, well, to me, it's just going to work and work on the coolest thing there is to work on now. So we don't usually think about how special that is. We just have our job to do, we gotta make this thing work, whatever it is that we're working on this week, we gotta make it work because you know, we're part of a team. And if it doesn't work all kinds of bad things can happen. Your support from the Congress and so forth might dry up. You might just end up wrecking things badly. So we all take it very, very seriously. And so nobody wants to be that person who dropped the ball, right? The people that I work with are extraordinary about keeping track, not letting anything get away from us." - John Mather
  • How does John balance the tension between the politics of science with the reality of doing science?
    • "Oh my goodness. Well, it's a large and difficult subject. My perspective is we're in this together. Even if we're competitors, if you're working on a project and I'm working on a project that's supposed to measure the same thing and we don't get the same answer, that's really important. So our job is to get evidence, not to win.... So I think a good scientist is always saying, 'I'm going to get more evidence. I'm not trying to browbeat anybody into believing me. I'm just going to get more evidence.' …And then of course, if you have an idea, then your job next is to... sort of spin a story about what you could discover if you could build it...I never worried very much about credit. It's not to tell the truth. The only way to get credit is to give credit. Yeah. If you think you can capture credit by claiming you did something well that lasts for a week and afterwards people would remember you that you're the one who took their credit away from them. And that's not a good thing to do. So the truth is we're all in this together. Even if it doesn't feel like it." - John Mather
  • What does John think about scientific press conferences? Are they a net benefit for science?
    • "A good question. That depends on motivation. Your motivation, giving a press conference to explain something that you're very sure that people will want to know. That's one thing, [but] if your motivation is to be first and to claim credit, then you're also pretty likely to be in trouble because it's not mature. So a standard policy for me, and I'm sure for most of the people that I work with, is no press conferences until your manuscript is selected for publication. So you know, we don't want to get in trouble and people do. So it's so easy to be eager to tell people how cool this thing is. And it's also so easy to be wrong. It happens so often. And who knows whether your current excitement is right or wrong?" - John Mather
  • How does John think we can continue to shape a consensus in science that is important for governments to allocate budget to science, especially when there are so many other competing priorities?
    • “Well good question. I like people to know that there are practical benefits for the science that we do along with the intellectual and emotional benefits that we get. So I like to share both. In my quest to understand the early universe, my basic wish is, how did I get here? I want to know what are all the steps from the Big Bang 'till now? As near as you can tell. So there are an awful lot of them. And so a lot of the most complicated ones are biology and geology. So I can't work on them. I don't know anything about them, but I can cheer when those people do. Then it turns out that those are really practically important for our own future. Since we're busy changing the planet that we live on, as fast as we can go. So there's a huge practical importance of basic science. Bill Gates is now telling everybody, as he's been saying for quite a long time, if you don't figure out energy supply and get to zero carbon, we're cooked. That wasn't his word, but we're cooked. So we can't get there by just being more economical about our food and our driving. We have to actually solve a big engineering problem. And right now it's not solved. So from a very practical sense, we have to work on that. If we want to be here in a thousand years, we've got to solve that one. And the only path before us is science and engineering. You can't really expect the public to do what it takes unless somebody has given them the tools." - John Mather
  • How has funding has changed over the course of John's career?
    • "It would say over my lifetime there've been huge changes. When I was young, for instance, the military supported basic science. And then Congress said, no, we don't want you to do that anymore. That should be handled by civilians. So that's a big change. So I think you have better information than I do about your question." - John Mather
  • What is John's opinion of the current education system? What would his ideal education system be?
    • "Oh, well, to answer is anything about the current education system I would have to imagine. I have not been a student for many years, so honestly, I can't tell you. I can tell you, though, that I'm astonished at how bright the young people are that are coming into our labs. There is no question in my mind that they're smarter than I am and they're quicker than I am and they know stuff that I could never know. And they are masters of tools that I don't know. So at least, as scientists, we are doing a brilliant job. I certainly, however, read the news and I find out that most people do not receive the citizen education that I got beginning in fourth grade. So most people are not shown how the government works. So if they don't know how it works, they try all kinds of weird things. That is a danger." - John Mather
  • Does John ever deal with the imposter syndrome?
    • "Well, I've never actually called it the imposter syndrome, but I think the life of a scientist is similar to my life, which is every day I get up and work on something, which I can't figure out yet. So every day, I'm the imposter who doesn't know the answer. So now what am I going to do? I don't have any choice. This is my job. I'm going to have to work on the thing that I haven't figured out yet. And so once in a while, I say, well, there's somebody over there that's really smart. What do I do? I ask that person for help. Don't try to beat them, try to join them. It took all of the members of our COBE science team to do what we did. And it takes all of the members of our gigantic engineering and technical science team for the Webb telescope." - John Mather
  • What ethical wisdom does John want to leave for his ideological heirs?
    • "I can say I'm going to do the best that I can with the people that I'm with so that we all proceed equally together. We do not cut corners. We are, at least in the sciences, zealous companions in pursuit of research. It's pretty clear that yes, if our society is to survive for more than a few centuries, we're going to have to place immense faith in the work of scientists and engineers. So I do what I can in that direction. Measuring the big bang doesn't have obvious connections to that. On the other hand, there's a kind of situation, which happens often, which is that we astronomers want to invent something because we want to know the answer to something else. And it turns out to have some completely unexpected application. There's a story that maybe you should tell if we've got another minute, which is that there's an inventor who figured out how to measure the shape of the Webb telescope mirrors as they were being polished. And after he got done doing that, he said, 'Hmm, I think we could improve what you have in the eye doctor's office.' So we went on to invent a piece of equipment, which is now in most eye doctors offices. So if you want to see better, or if you want to get your eyesight corrected, or if you want the doctor to be able to see what's in the back of your eye you are now using an invention that was made by that person who got, got ready to do it by making the Webb telescope mirrors." - John Mather
  • What would John put on a time capsule to encapsulate what's important to him or something about science that he thinks will endure for millions or billions of years?
    • Ah, well I got to ask this question in the middle of a musical event, once in Lindau. Which we were putting on. And I said, actually, what I'd like to get on this next record that goes out of the solar system is you'd have the United Nations’ declaration of universal human rights. So the way that we did that in the performance was it was pieces of, it were read out loud, simultaneously in about eight languages. So it was a way of saying, well, we're all in this together." - John Mather
  • What advice would John give to his younger self?
    • "I think we are all in the same position that we do not know the future and We have the opportunity to look for things that we might do that nobody's ever done. That's sort of a scientist's job, maybe it's everyone's job. But at any rate, something happened that never would have happened without me. And I think the mindset that makes it interesting is, well, why not? Let's try it. See what happens." - John Mather

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