Former Nobel Prize winner presents physics lecture at K-State

Former Nobel Prize winner John C. Mather gives a physics lecture at Cardwell Hall Tuesday night. In his lectures on Monday and Tuesday, he discussed the Cosmic Background Explorer and the infrared telescope. (Photo courtesy of Lewis Marien)

Senior astrophysicist John C. Mather discussed the Cosmic Background Explorer and the infrared telescope, which led to the discoveries that helped prove the Big Bang, on Monday and Tuesday at Cardwell Hall.

Tim Bolton, department head of physics, said Mather’s enthusiasm was “the highlight of the presentation.”

“We don’t get Nobel Prize winners walking down the hallways every day,” Bolton said. “It has a high impact on our department and the large community we have around our department.”

Mather said he always had an interest in astronomy because he was raised in science. His father was a scientist studying dairy cows and his grandfather developed penicillin in laboratories. 

“Well, I got intrigued with the mysteries,” Mather said. “We saw the Museum of Natural History in New York, and the planetarium show, and wondered where things came from. There were things on TV about the mysteries of space and science, and I thought, ‘Hey, that’s pretty cool and I want to know more.’”

Mather said he developed an interest for physics in high school which developed into a passion for quantum mechanics and relativity. After some challenges with a career in theoretical physics, he switched to learning about cosmic microwave background radiation, leading to him working at NASA learning about radio astronomy. 

“NASA needed proposals for missions,” Mather said. “So I told him that my thesis project failed, we should try it in outer space. … I didn’t think it’d work, but it did. Fifteen years later we launched the satellite.” 

Mather said he is working on various projects. The Dragonfly, which will be ready in 2034, will investigate the terrain and look for signs of life on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons.

“We want to get a close-up view of as much as possible of the surface, because it’s not just a boring little rock,” Mather said. “It’s got lakes and rivers and rain and clouds. Some of the other satellites detected motions under the ice, so it’s worth thinking about.”

Dawson Wagner, graduate teaching assistant at K-State, said he attended the presentation because of his passion for astronomy.

“It’s a wonder for what’s out there whenever we look up at the sky that makes me so curious, and when there’s other curious minds in the room that want to know that too it makes it fun,” Wagner said. 

Those interested in making a proposal to use the telescope at NASA can submit their ideas through the Space Telescope Science Institute

“We need basically every flavor of person to work with us,” Mather said. “Just about anybody can work for NASA, you just have to say you want to.”