Nobel Prize in Physics Awarded to Two U.S. Cosmologists

October 3, 2006

U.S. scientists John C. Mather and George F. Smoot today won the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics for their research helping to solidify the big bang theory of the origin of the universe.

Mather, of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and Smoot, from the University of California, Berkeley, will each receive half of the prize, worth 10 million Swedish kronor (1.4 million U.S. dollars), for their groundbreaking studies of cosmic background radiation.

Their research provided a number of important insights into the early history of the universe and the formation of the first stars and galaxies.

"This is one of the really great discoveries in science," said Per Carlson, chair of the Nobel committee for physics. "It explains the place of mankind in the universe and explains the origins of the universe."

Studying the Background

Mather and Smoot had lead responsibilities for several of the most important experiments conducted by the COBE satellite, which was launched in November 1989 to help study the universe's cosmic microwave background radiation.

Background radiation is left over from the earliest phase of the universe. A mere 400,000 years after the universe formed in a violent explosion known as the big bang, it began to emit radiation as it cooled from an extremely hot and dense state.

Using COBE data, Mather and Smoot were able to precisely detail the nature of the microwave radiation. They verified that the radiation had a special "blackbody" spectrum, as predicted by big bang theory.

Blackbody radiation is the name given to radiation emitted by a rare type of object. The spectrum of such radiation across various wavelengths (colors) of light is dependent solely on temperature.

"The COBE results provided increased support for the big bang scenario for the origin of the Universe, as this is the only scenario that predicts the kind of cosmic microwave background radiation measured by COBE," according to a news release from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which awards the physics prize.

"It says that the radiation really did come from the big bang," Mather added in an interview with the Nobel Foundation.

"There really is not a good alternative explanation for having such a perfect blackbody spectrum. Many people looked, but no good explanation was found, and so the big bang theory is confirmed by that spectrum," he said.

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