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6 questions for Nobel laureate John Mather

We asked NASA’s senior project scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope about scientific ethics, how he approaches risk and what he would say to an alien.

Anna Iacobucci ‘20 and Noor Sugrue ‘19
October 10, 2018
Students walking along the paths with Dr. Mather

Anna Iacobucci ‘20 and Noor Sugrue ’19 with Dr. John Mather.

Be curious and persistent. It’s a simple credo that has propelled Dr. John Mather since childhood, and one he encouraged Exonians to follow.

Mather, who received the 2006 Physics Nobel for his work on the Cosmic Background Explorer Satellite, a project that helped reinforce the big-bang theory, gave students plenty of opportunity to express their curiosity during his recent visit to campus. Over two days, he attended classes and actively joined in discussions about physics, astronomy and epistemology. He had lunch with students and presented an assembly (watch the Oct. 5 assembly at Exeter Live).

Friday morning, Mather sat down with Anna Iacobucci ‘20 and Noor Sugrue ’19 for a 40-minute conversation. Tall and thin, with a broad smile, he answered a host of questions from the two Astronomy Club co-heads, and asked some of his own. Below are edited excerpts from that conversation.


What are your obligations to humanity as a scientist? And do you think that we sometimes discover things that we shouldn’t have or that we would be better off not knowing?

John Mather: That’s a fascinating question, isn’t it? The archetypes of those questions are Adam and Eve and the apple. And also Pandora opening up her little box.

You can’t tell people to stop thinking. But you can tell people to please organize ourselves so that if there is something dangerous we’re about to do, we actually think about it first.

Do you know about gene drives? That’s something we don’t understand and we know that biological things are really good at evading whatever you think you’re going to control. So there’s a logical possibility we could wipe ourselves out by having a gene drive. On the other hand, people say, ‘But, I really want to get rid of mosquitos. I look at my knuckles and I have mosquito bites.’ But then you say, what if this stuff gets loose and does something that nobody ever wanted? That’s where I think we have to be cautious. We’re recognizing when something really could get out of control.

And then there are things that are getting out of control and nobody thought they were going to be harmful in the first place. We built Facebook and now people hate each other in two teams. This team hates that team. That’s crazy. People who developed it thought, what a wonderful way for us to talk with each other.

We’ve actually been there before. There is a lovely book, it’s called “Revolutionary Characters.” It’s about the people who wrote the Constitution over 200 years ago. They were all disappointed at what happened after they turned it loose. The minute they got it going, people divided into parties and started slandering each other in order to get power. So Jefferson went home and said, ‘I’m not coming out.’

You can build something with the best of intentions. And you really just don’t know, especially when it comes to people.

Do you think it would be better to just not learn things sometimes and be fine in not knowing?

JM: No, we don’t have a choice of not knowing. With 7 billion people we’re going to try everything. You can’t say, “OK, person over there in Southern New Zealand, you’re not allowed to do this.” The way I look at it,  we need all the science we can get because we’re creating trouble as we go and we have to notice it and fix it.

It was scientists that came forward and said, “By the way it’s getting warmer here, didn’t you notice? We’re using up all the XYZ resources, didn’t you notice?” The sooner you know you’re doing something you don’t want to do, the better off you are. That means that scientists and engineers, too, are going to have a perpetual requirement to keep on going.

The scientists are like the doctors for the world. I never thought of it that way until I was talking to you two. [Laughter] So that’s our job, at least in part. Not only to discover stuff but also to protect ourselves.

Dr. John Mather, courtesy NASA

How have you seen the attitudes toward women in science change over the course of your career, especially since Dr. Donna Strickland is only the third female to win a Physics Nobel Prize? And how do you think we can improve the situation?

JM: I think things have improved a vast amount already. When I was a high school student my sister, who would have been good at science, was told, “No, girls don’t do that.” It was really difficult for [women] who wanted to become scientists to do it unless they had a special circumstance where somebody would help them. When I was a freshman in college, that was the first year a woman went to Harvard Medical School. Before that they said you can’t go because you’re just going to want to get married and have kids. What a waste. Isn’t that disrespectful?

I think half of all medical students are women by now, maybe more. Half of our new post docs at Goddard, where I am, are women. And they’re just as good as everybody else. There’s no question. So why would we ever have thought otherwise?

Now we’ve got another part of this which is to make sure that everybody is safe. We’ve detected the obvious fact that in academic environments where one person, like a faculty advisor, has a lot of power, they have the ability to coerce people. So we’ve been finding out that some men have been bad actors and people finally speaking up, feeling safe enough to speak up, and saying that person is a bad person. Don’t allow that person to be allowed to do what they’ve been doing. Some universities have been taking away the awards that have been given. The Academy of Sciences has said, we can take away your membership if you do evil things to other people.

We still need people to speak up and say something bad did happen. You can see from politics that’s not so easy. I think a huge change has occurred. I’m really pleased to see it.

Mather presents his pioneering work at assembly.

What would be the first thing that you would ask an alien, given that you were able to communicate with them?

JM: How did you find us and how did you get here? [Laughter]

We know space is very large and that traveling the distance is virtually impossible. The way I look at it, it is impossible. But you could make a robotic civilization that, in principle, could travel because robots don’t have to breathe. You could just say, “Fall asleep for a hundred thousand years while you’re waiting to get there.” So I think if we do encounter an alien civilization it will be robotic, because carbon-based civilization cannot make the trip.

Do you think that humans will still be alive by the time we’ll be able to even start doing stuff like that?

JM: I think what’s likely to happen is that we will create a robotic civilization with artificial intelligence. And I think that will be unstable, just like everything is unstable, and they’ll either wipe us out or something will happen. It will be a good story to tell at that time. There are lots of books about how it’s impossible to create artificial intelligence, and I say, let the graduate students at it.

I don’t think there’s a principle of nature that says it can’t be done. I think in your lifetime it’s likely to happen.

In our lifetime?

JM: Yes. An artificial intelligence that you would consider to be at least as interesting as a human.

So then what? I’d like to meet my artificial Einstein. “OK, Albert the second, how did you do it the first time and please tell me about string theory.”

That’s a really scary thought.

JM: Yes, it is. But I think it is something that has been set in motion. When we say how long will it take? Well, how hard are we working on it? Everybody who has any money that they think they could turn into a product like the self-driving car, or whatever, they’re spending it. They’re working on it.

If it is impossible, then we won’t do it. But if it is possible, we’re working as hard as we can to make it happen.

Do you have any recommendations for students who are interested in going into the sciences or who are interested in becoming researchers?

JM: If you’re at all interested, I think it’s a wonderfully exciting place to go. It’s in constant turmoil. Everything that I’m seeing today is so different from what it was before. I’ve lived long enough that when I arrived at Goddard, we designed space craft with sharp pencils and big pieces of paper. There was a computer at my desk and it was a round slide rule with two pointers. 

I think we’re going to still accomplish miracles, things that seem impossible today.


Anna Iacobucci is an upper from South Hampton, New Hampshire. Noor Sugrue is a senior from Geneva, Switzerland.