For many of us, a project that lasts a semester seems to go on forever. However, semesters end, and we go on with our lives. John Mather pursued a dream, measuring the spectrum of the afterglow of the Big Bang at the start of our universe, and it was twenty years until he unveiled the most ideal blackbody spectrum ever seen, to an audience of usually hypercritical physicists, who rose to a standing ovation to celebrate this triumph. It was a triumph that he gladly shared with twenty lead scientists, dozens of managers and engineers, and hundreds of contributors.
“The Very First Light” tells the story of this successful pursuit. Mather interweaves the history of the development of our current scientific understanding of the early universe, his personal story of a life in science, an account of mastering the bureaucracy of webs of committees and teams of scientists, engineers, and technicians, and the grand denouement that led to the award of the Nobel Prize in Stockholm. One learns of the joys and strains of great minds and egos striving together. There are the moments of hectic activity interspersed with the heartbreaking moments when all would seem lost, as when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded just seconds into its flight. Through it all the Mather humbly, quietly, gently, and determinedly kept moving forward, through re-designs and staffing changes, and delays upon delays. Each change of fortune is describes in both scientific and emotional detail.
For someone who has engaged in tabletop physics for most of my life, the world of teams of hundreds of people is totally foreign. Mather has provided a valuable glimpse. The contrasting styles of a government agency like NASA, with its teams of technicians, and academic researchers, with their small teams of graduate students and postdocs, are revealed. Ultimately, this is a story of personalities, and there are so many fascinating ones. I found myself drawn to David Wilkerson who was present at Dicke’s first attempts to detect the cosmic microwave background radiation, served faithfully as a member of Mather’s team on the COBE satellite that measured its spectrum, and whose name will always be associate with the WMAP satellite that has provided tremendous imaging of the minute anisotropies of the background radiation.
Having provided a vision of the beauty of the universe captured by this investigation, Mather closes his book by taking a moment to ponder the significance of his discoveries. It is a worthy endeavor for all of us. And then it is time to be grateful, grateful to John Mather for our new view of the universe provided by his dogged pursuit of two decades and grateful for the manner in which he has laid the process out before us in this book.