The Future of Scientific Research
An Interview with Nobel Laureate Astrophysicist Dr. John Mather
Dr. John C. Mather is a Senior Astrophysicist and is the Senior Project Scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD. His research centers on infrared astronomy and cosmology. As an NRC postdoctoral fellow at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (New York City), he led the proposal efforts for the Cosmic Background Explorer (74–76), and came to GSFC to be the Study Scientist (76–88), Project Scientist (88–98), and the Principal Investigator for the Far IR Absolute Spectrophotometer (FIRAS) on COBE. With the COBE team, he showed that the cosmic microwave background radiation has a blackbody spectrum within 50 parts per million, confirming the expanding universe model (aka the Big Bang Theory) to extraordinary accuracy, and initiating the study of cosmology as a precision science.
When and how did you fall in love with science?
I was around 6 when my dad told me a bedtime story that we are all made of cells with chromosomes that control our future in some unknown way. I was fascinated. When I was 8, my parents took me to the American Museum of Natural History and the Hayden Planetarium in NY City, and I saw the sky show and the dinosaurs, and we went back again in later years. My parents also read out loud some bits of biographies of Galileo and Darwin. Science was obviously important, all the more because it was a little dangerous.
What scientists have inspired you most?
Galileo and Darwin.
What areas of research are most interesting right now?
Physics and astronomy and biology. They all have wonderful new tools and discoveries happening every day. AI is also exciting, though I don’t know how it works, as it seems to be making rapid progress. Maybe Einstein 2.0 isn’t here yet, but he or she could arrive in decades.
What advances in science do you see on the horizon?
I think we’ll find Earth-like planets with signs of life, a unified theory that combines quantum mechanics and general relativity, molecular tools to change everything about living beings, and powerful and frightening AI. I think we’ll find ways to avoid carbon fuels and switch to electric everything.
What recent scientific discoveries are you most excited about and why?
CRISPR is a stunning development because it gives us letter-level control of genetic material, with unforeseeable consequences. Every great tool is a great weapon too.
Are there areas of scientific research that can now advance as a result of advances in supercomputing?
Simulation of complex systems (weather, geology, biology, astrophysics) are all wide open. Aerodynamics offers supersonic aircraft without the boom.
What areas of scientific research will be most impacted by advances in technology in the future?
There’s no limit, everything will be changed.
How important are science fair projects in early science education?
I don’t know these days. But they were important for me. I got to try out impossible ideas and some of them are still current.
Do you see any challenges to future scientific research?
People could become afraid of the answers, as we see already from climate change and extinction research.
Are you optimistic about the future of scientific research?
Yes, you never outgrow your need to understand what’s happening. Science is the evidence-based system for finding out. I think government, business, and philanthropic funding sources all appreciate this.