The Unflappable John Mather

May 2, 2023

wo months before NASA unveiled the first images from the James Webb Space Telescope to the world last summer, some 50 astronomers and engineers anxiously gathered in the mission’s control room at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore for the moment of truth. Finally, after a 35-year-long, seemingly insurmountable journey through technological adversity, threatened cancellations, anda pandemic, the newly calibrated $10 billion observatory was about to reveal how well it worked—or didn’t.

Among those awaiting that first test shot was John Mather, the mission’s senior project scientist, Nobel laureate, and senior astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. The team had focused the observatory’s massive 21-foot hexagonal mirror on a single star surrounded by utter blackness. But when countless lights suddenly peppered the image, there were audible gasps. “My God, there were just galaxies everywhere!” Mather says. “It was such a wonderful surprise and relief.” Then they broke out the champagne and a bottle of century-old Scotch. 

It was an emotional moment for the normally unflappable scientist, who’d spent nearly three decades helping to shape and champion the mission’s science objectives—some requiring technology that had yet to be invented. The most sophisticated astronomical instrument in history is designed to capture infrared light from 13.6 billion years ago, enabling views of the early universe some 200 million years after the Big Bang. The data it collects over the next decade will give us a new understanding of how galaxies, stars, and planets formed in the early cosmos, whether planets orbiting nearby stars (exoplanets) might support life, and the makeup of our solar system.

“This is all part of one thing, which is ‘How did we get here?’” says Mather, now 76. “The Big Bang happens; galaxies, stars, and planets grow; they all get enriched with chemical elements. And so here we are. Where did everything here come from? We’re living our own history by looking at the rest of the universe.” 

The JWST was arguably the most inspiring science story of 2022. Its launch the previous Christmas and flawless unfolding of its sun shield and primary mirror en route to an orbit 1 million miles away were remarkable feats of engineering. The breathtaking images that followed revealed stunning insights into the nature of the cosmos. For Mather, it was yet another summit in a storied half-century career in infrared astronomy and cosmology that included the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics (with Berkeley Professor Emeritus George Smoot) for capturing data supporting the Big Bang model. He has also advised NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Science Foundation; earned five dozen awards; engaged in some three dozen scientific papers; and coauthored the book The Very First Light

For these achievements, UC Berkeley Foundation and the Cal Alumni Association have granted Mather, Ph.D. ’74, the UC Berkeley Alumnus of the Year Award for extraordinary advances to the betterment of society, to be presented at the Berkeley Charter Gala on May 11. “He’s inspired not only numerous Berkeley faculty and students, but even the most amateur astronomers and citizens worldwide,” says Achievement Awards cochairman Ahmad Anderson ’83. “His contribution makes us think about life and existence and what we can do to sustain that on Earth.”