John C. Mather

Banquet speech

John C. Mather’s speech at the Nobel Banquet in the Stockholm City Hall, 10 December 2006.

Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Your Excellencies, Honored Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great honor for George Smoot and me to accept the Prize in Physics this year for our work on the very first light, the incredibly intense heat radiation that filled the universe when it was young, and still shines down on us with a microwatt per square meter even now. We are here with the members of the Cosmic Background Explorer science team who did this work with us, and with a few of the 1600 other professionals at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and Ball Aerospace, who found a way to build what had never been built before, to find out what had never been known before. I am here with my wife Jane, who has shared in this project from the beginning, as have all our families, and we are so happy we could burst. We always knew our work was important, and now you know and everyone knows.

You might ask, why is light so important, that it is the subject of 14 previous Nobel Prizes, including one for the discovery of this very same primeval radiation? That is like asking, why is there a universe to explore, or what was there before the Big Bang? Everybody asks that question, but I don’t have an answer. When, or if, we do have an answer, I am pretty sure that the Nobel committee will consider it an important discovery. Light gives us life through photosynthesis, it fills one of our only five senses, it lets us see back in time towards that cosmic big bang, and it helps us communicate with the other sentient beings here on earth, and maybe in outer space, though the odds of finding those other beings are small. Christer Fuglesang, Sweden’s first astronaut, is helping us start our trip into the solar system, and we use radio, which is a form of light, to talk to him. Einstein studied light to develop the theory of relativity, believing that the laws of nature that give us light must surely be true no matter how fast we are moving. And now we know that even electrons and protons behave a lot like waves of light, in ways that continue to astonish us. They give us the basic laws of chemistry and lead to the complexity of biology and eventually to that incomprehensible consciousness that brings us together here tonight.

And now we are here, in this beautiful northern city, at a time of year when the light from the Sun is hidden from us so much, we enjoy the fruits of science and engineering, we turn on the light wherever we go, and marvel at the sweet mystery of life. George and I and the whole COBE team thank the Nobel Foundation for recognizing our work, and we are happy to say, that by giving the Nobel Prizes, Sweden achieves far greater honor than we do. For all of us who worked on the COBE project, and all our families, we thank you with all our hearts.

Copyright © The Nobel Foundation 2006

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