Humble Arrogance

Humble Arrogance by John Mather '68
 
 

John Mather '68, co-recipient of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics for providing increased support for the Big Bang theory of the universe, is a senior astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Mather graduated with highest honors in physics and is the fifth Swarthmore alum to be recognized by the Nobel Foundation since 1972. Write to him at john.c.mather@nasa.gov.    

 

This essay first appeared in The Meaning of Swarthmore (2004).

o me, Swarthmore was my first chance to meet a lot of people like myself, to make new friends, and to test whether I was capable of achieving my dreams in the Big World. My childhood stories were of Galileo and Darwin and Newton and Einstein, and I wanted to understand how the universe really works. I had the bravery of one who has not yet been tested. But at Swarthmore, I met people - friends and faculty - for whom such dreams were the normal, if unexpressed, way of life.

Of course, we would learn calculus and chemistry and astronomy and physics. Of course, we would think about relativity and the weird nature of space and time. Of course, we would wonder how particles of matter could be waves described by complex numbers. Downstairs in the basement of DuPont, we measured the force of gravity really precisely; we measured the speed of light; we made some electronic circuits; and we measured nuclear magnetic resonance the old way, with magnets and surplus microwave hardware (before the technique became a medical standard). And from there, we would go on to the really hard puzzles, of science and of more complex things not yet approached by science.


Mather shows some of the earliest data from the COBE satellite at NASA headquarters in Wash., D.C.
photo by NASA

 
 

I chose Swarthmore over Harvard, MIT, Caltech, and Princeton, partly because it had a well-organized physics program that covered everything neatly and partly for the nice feel of the campus. I was a little intimidated by the Big City, and I liked the quiet of the College. I had grown up in rural New Jersey on the Rutgers Agricultural Experiment Station, where my father was a scientist studying dairy cattle, but it was way out in the country, and school was an hour's ride away on the bus. Swarthmore was a good place to study, and it was respectable to be a nerd, before the term was coined.

So, how did it all turn out? Just fine. From Swarthmore, I went on to Berkeley and got into measuring the spectrum of the cosmic microwave background radiation. It is the very faint echo of the Big Bang itself; at the time, we could barely detect it. It had just been discovered in 1965, just up the road in New Jersey, while I was still a Swarthmore student. Nevertheless, our business was to have the chutzpah to try to measure it much better than ever before, using a balloon to carry a payload above the interference of the Earth's atmosphere. Previously, as a Swarthmore student, I had been enjoying the challenge and thought maybe by hard work I'd learn a lot, and then exams came, and I felt the excitement of being able to figure things out. But now, I was getting the feeling that doing science was to be always up against the unknown and the unknowable; it was a rare day when I really felt I knew what I was doing. Indeed, the first flight of the balloon payload was a failure for three different reasons. Nature's final exams are a lot less organized than a college course-and unforgiving as well.

John Mather '68 received an honorary doctorate of science at Swarthmore's 1994 commencement.

 

I went on from there to keep on whacking away at impossible problems. I went to work for NASA and organized a team to build the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite to measure the cosmic background radiation better, and I came to appreciate how much modern science is a team sport. We advanced the state of the art by orders of magnitude; made the front pages of the news around the world; and made a book of our story, The Very First Light. The topic is still hot, and my colleagues have found ways to learn about the fundamental forces that move the universe by examining the radiation in even more detail. Now, I've moved to another project, to build the James Webb Space Telescope to follow after the famous Hubble Space Telescope, and it seems even more difficult and more important than the COBE.

Now that I've worked as a professional scientist for a few decades, I feel just as ignorant as I did when I walked into Swarthmore, and I still have the nerve to try to unlock the secrets. It takes an odd sort of humble arrogance to even attempt to do this. I have a deep sense of the mystery of nature, and I'm constantly amazed at how much we've learned as puny humans, but there are billions of us, crawling all over everything like ants, bringing back our treasures, telling our friends, and putting our discoveries in the libraries of paper and electrons. There's a kind of immortality about writing things down for the world to see.