2 in U.S. Win Nobel Prize for Research of Universe's Origin

By Marc Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Americans John C. Mather and George F. Smoot won the 2006 Nobel Prize in physics yesterday for producing the first tangible evidence that the universe began billions of years ago with the long-theorized big bang.

Using pioneering data from a NASA satellite they helped design and create, the two produced measurements that confirmed an essential aspect of the big-bang scenario -- that a cosmic bath of microwaves emanated from that original event and has been expanding and cooling ever since.

The Nobel committee praised their findings as a scientific turning point, one that changed cosmology from a theoretical science into one in which precise measurements and conclusions are possible.

Mather, 60, a Hyattsville resident and a senior astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, was the principal investigator for the groundbreaking Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite and experiments in 1989. Smoot, 61, an experimental astrophysicist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., played a key role in the highly complex work of analyzing the data.

"They have not proven the big-bang theory, but they give it very strong support," said Per Carlson, chairman of the Nobel Committee for Physics. "It is one of the greatest discoveries of the century; I would call it the greatest. It increases our knowledge of our place in the universe."

The research propelled Mather and Smoot to instant scientific renown, with some describing their findings as evidence of a moment of "creation." At a 1992 news briefing on their discoveries, Smoot famously said that "if you're religious, it's like seeing God."

Mather put it differently yesterday. "What we're looking at is a tremendous mystery," he said of the beginnings of the universe. "We can work to describe it, but we cannot really explain it. . . . What we found is traces of the very earliest moment of time."

With the help of the COBE experiments, a scientific consensus has formed that the universe is about 13.7 billion years old.

Mather is the first NASA civil-servant scientist to win the Nobel Prize, but he is hardly the first federal employee to claim the most prestigious award in science. About one-quarter of the 270 Americans who have won Nobels were employed by the government.

Since 1986, Americans have won the physics prize, or shared it with people from other nations, 15 times.

The COBE satellite experiments resulted in the first detection of faint temperature variations in the cosmic microwave background, the haze of radiation representing the first light able to move freely after the big bang.

Those tiny differences in temperature are essential to explain how stars and galaxies formed. If the energy and radiation emanating from the big bang had been uniform, scientists theorized, the universe would not have materialized as it did. Before COBE, however, attempts to find temperature variations or "ripples" in the microwave background had failed.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2006 The Washington Post Company