A Nobel glow lights up Stockholm
December 26, 2006
STOCKHOLM, Sweden – The first thing you notice here in December is the thin northern European light, a cold wash of blue-white that strikes the earthy red and saffron buildings, producing a kind of alpenglow even at midday. Also its absence. It’s not light until 8:30 in the morning and the sun sets at 2:15 p.m. By 4 it is pitch-black and seems like 10. Visitors may complain, but the stoic Swedes carry on as usual in their clean, beautiful capital on each short day’s journey into night.
“We need the sun just like everybody else,” said Nils Sjoustrand, a department store clerk. “We can go to Thailand or Greece in the winter. But what else can we do?” There is something else. Scandinavia in general, and Sweden in particular, has one of the world’s highest suicide rates – especially in winter.Every December a light of a different kind penetrates Stockholm and warms its citizens’ hearts: the glow brought by the awarding of the Nobel Prizes. The most glittering event on Stockholm’s calendar, Nobel Week is the Swedish Super Bowl and World Cup all rolled into one, a time when Swedes gather in front of the television to watch the king, the laureates and everybody else who is anybody in Sweden, all dressed up for the ball. My wife Susan, our daughter Sophie and I came to Stockholm in early December to celebrate the Nobel Prize in Physics co-won by our friend and my co-author John C. Mather. Our book, “The Very First Light,” published a decade ago, describes the work that led to Mather and his co-winner George Smoot being awarded the physics prize.Our journey to Stockholm began Oct. 3, when I was thrilled to hear on KAJX, Aspen’s National Public Radio station, that the Swedish Royal Academy had decided to award the prize to Mather and Smoot. I shot off an e-mail of congratulations to John. “I was amazed,” said Mather, an astrophysicist for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, after receiving the call from the Royal Swedish Academy at his Hyattsville, Md., home at 5:45 a.m. “It had been such a long time since we did our work that I had given up on it.”
Smoot, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, who received his call from the Nobel folks at 3 a.m., was less sanguine: “I was amazed they found me. I have an unlisted number. The prize is exciting, but not as exciting as making our discoveries.”The winners of the Nobel Prizes in physics and chemistry are decided by the membership of the Swedish Royal Academy – several hundred scientists of many nationalities. They typically vote on the awards around midday after lengthy debate on the nominees, whose names have been submitted by a five-person committee. The calls are put in to the new laureates at once to avoid leaks to the media, hence the early wake-ups to U.S. scientists, who are six to nine hours behind Stockholm. The Royal Swedish Academy is nothing if not efficient and prompt.Along with being delighted at the news, I was hugely relieved. I was also immediately aware of the deep irony of the shared Nobel for physics. Smoot and Mather have been feuding for 14 years. The hostility grew from their work together on a NASA spacecraft that precisely measured the feeble remnants of light left over from the earliest time in the universe.Time magazine called them the “Battlin’ Brainiacs.” As the magazine noted, Mather had become infuriated in 1992 when Smoot prematurely announced results of their collaborative research in violation of a team agreement.The issue, as always in matters scientific, was who gets credit for a discovery, new theory or experimental finding. Such credit is the coin of the realm in scientific circles, where little else matters – even though history shows that the waters of discovery are often muddied. This time it appeared that Smoot had made a grab for solo glory. Mather had every reason to be furious – and worried.
In 1974 he was a 28-year-old postdoctoral fellow just beginning his NASA career when the space agency issued a call for scientific experiments to be carried into orbit. Mather quickly put together a small team of fellow astrophysicists. They drew up a proposal for a spacecraft to measure the cosmic background radiation – sometimes called the universe’s first light. The radiation had been discovered accidentally in 1965 at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey. Most, but not all, physicists believed it was the residue of the intense heat left over from the Big Bang, the primordial explosion thought to have created the universe. Two Bell Labs physicists, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, received a Nobel Prize more than a decade later, in 1978, for the discovery that itself was marked by extreme controversy over scientific credit.Unknown to Mather, George Smoot, a postdoc at the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory in California, was on another team applying to NASA to measure the cosmic background. NASA took the expedient step of simply adding Smoot to Mather’s team, which eventually won the stiff competition to launch the spacecraft into orbit. It was to be called the Cosmic Background Explorer, or COBE.There could hardly have been an odder pair. Tall, thin and bespectacled, Mather was a classic nerd. A team player to a fault, he could be righteous, even a little priggish, though he had a winning smile and lively sense of humor: To my daughter Sophie’s delight, he had once stepped off an awkwardly shaped room at our house and declared it “30 square paces” after we had asked him to tell us how to measure its square footage for a bet.Smoot was more robust, with a red beard and hair. While Mather was a pure intellect who had been one of the top high school math students in the country, Smoot, also very bright, was a hands-on kind of physicist who could be irascible. He had once exchanged threats of physical violence with a competing postdoc in Berkeley, but could also be whimsical, even charismatic, in social situations.
“John is a sweetheart and perfect gentleman. But there is no doubt George is something of a rascal,” a COBE team member told me. “Yes, he can be charming. But you always get the sense that George is only out for George.”Mather was installed as head of the COBE team and was also in charge of one of the spacecraft’s three instruments. Smoot was in charge of another. Over the next decade and a half, as many as 1,600 scientists, engineers and contractors worked on the project, which bled a million dollars a month.The COBE project was threatened with extinction in 1986 when the Challenger blew up and the shuttle fleet was grounded. The COBE satellite was to have been lifted into orbit aboard a shuttle. Now there was no route into space. Scrambling, Mather found an old Delta rocket that he thought might work. But the satellite’s payload of 10,954 pounds would have to be cut in half. The reconfiguration took three years and millions of man-hours. At last the COBE satellite was ready for launch at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in November 1989. Deltas had a 98 percent success rate, but this one was patched and jury-rigged and, like all Deltas, had no redundant systems.”We were all nervous,” Mather recalls. “But I convinced myself that if it blew up it blew up, and there was nothing I could do about it.” The launch was perfect, and within a few minutes after reaching polar orbit, the COBE satellite deployed its instruments and began sending data. Scientists at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, plotting millions of bits of information, saw almost at once that the cosmic background radiation behaved as if it came from a glowing black body.This was exactly what the Big Bang theory predicted. Using ground or high-altitude balloon-based instruments, scientists had never been able to measure the blackbody spectrum – how the wavelengths of the radiation from the early universe were distributed. But now Mather’s team, with its instrument called the Far Infrared Absolute Spectrometer high above the earth’s offending atmosphere, had done so.
“It was like seeing the very hand of creation,” Rich Isaacman, one of the Goddard scientists, told me. “We felt like we were looking at the Big Bang itself.” When Mather presented a graph showing the perfect blackbody spectrum to a meeting of the American Astronomical Society, he received a rare standing ovation. To the collective relief of the membership, Mather’s team had not only erased lingering doubts about the Big Bang theory, but seemed to have proven it definitively. At the same time, Mather and his team had established cosmology, the study of the universe from its birth to death, as a precision science.The Smoot team’s instrument was more difficult. Called the Differential Microwave Radiometer, it compared the temperature of the background radiation from different parts of the sky. The Big Bang theory predicted that tiny variations of a few hundred-thousandths of a degree would show where matter had begun to accumulate in the early universe. This was the only way galaxies, stars and eventually planets like Earth – and us – could have formed.Data from Smoot’s DMR was complex. Analysis of it took years. In 1990 Mather and COBE science team members assembled at the Aspen Center for Physics to analyze and share data. A television crew from California, which was filming a PBS series called “The Astronomers,” also visited Aspen. The crew invited about 15 members of the COBE team to a fashionable restaurant one evening and asked them to talk about the project while the cameras rolled.As time for presentation of the results approached in 1992, members of the COBE team were taken aback when Smoot declared the data off-limits to everybody else. “George acted like he owned it himself,” said COBE team member Nancy Boggess.Mather and the other COBE scientists became even more alarmed when they learned the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, where Smoot worked, had issued a press release about the findings a few days ahead of NASA’s own – a violation of a publications agreement Smoot had signed.
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The press release, announcing that the predicted minuscule irregularities in the background temperature – or “anisotropies” – had been found led to an Associated Press story that circulated around the world. It mentioned NASA only in passing and did not cite a single member of the COBE science team other than Smoot. Speaking at a NASA-authorized press conference near Washington, D.C., a few days later, Smoot said:”We have observed the oldest and largest structures ever seen in the early universe … ripples in the fabric of space-time left from the creation period.” Over billions of years, these had grown into galaxies and clusters of galaxies.”If you’re religious, it’s like looking at God,” Smoot concluded.The remark, which troubled Mather and other COBE members who hesitated to inject theological matters into their work, along with the early AP story converted Smoot into a media star almost at once. Virtually every major newspaper in the world, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times featured front-page stories about “Smoot’s discovery.” The New York Times and other papers referred to Smoot as head of the COBE team, a position actually held by Mather. Smoot appeared on ABC’s Nightline and was named by People magazine as one of its 25 most interesting people of 1992.Stephen Hawking, the British theorist and probably the most famous scientist in the world, called the COBE discovery the “discovery of the century, if not of all time.” Other scientists said they thought Smoot would win the Nobel Prize. Within a few days Smoot had received advances totaling a reported $2 million for a book to be published in the U.S. and abroad.
A little while after the frenzy subsided, Rich Isaacman, a COBE team member I had once interviewed, called me. Would I be interested in doing a book about COBE to set the record straight? Smoot had apologized to the COBE team in writing, after months of negotiations and several drafts: “I do apologize for disruption caused in the team and in the imbalance in the credit … The COBE Publication Policy does include press releases and I apologize for this judgment error.” But COBE team members were deeply worried that Mather and the rest of the team would be overlooked when recognition for the COBE discoveries, including a possible Nobel Prize, was handed out.I met Mather a few days later. He was clearly upset and angry. As chief of the project, he had put the COBE team together, written the NASA proposal and then found the Delta rocket. Now it looked like somebody else might run away with all the credit. We agreed to do a book together. Finally published in 1996 (after earning a notably smaller advance than Smoot’s), “The Very First Light” told the COBE story, while criticizing Smoot in great detail for his apparent effort to run away with all the glory.But had we gone too far? One reviewer, a well-known physicist named Joseph Silk, glowingly praised the book, then stated we had been too harsh on Smoot. After all, he pointed out, the science spoke for itself.As the years passed, with no Nobel forthcoming, I started worrying that our book’s criticism of Smoot might have cost Mather – and possibly Smoot – a chance at the physics prize. There was precedent for this: Bickering over credit for the original discovery of the background radiation in 1965 probably kept theorists at Princeton University from a piece of the Prize in 1978. I had underestimated the Nobel folks in Stockholm.
The Nobel Prizes are a quaint 19th-century relic. Almost everybody knows how wealthy industrialist and inventor Alfred Nobel established the prizes in his will. He chose subjects dear to him at the time of his death in 1896: physics, chemistry, medicine or physiology, literature and world peace. The economics prize was instituted by the Bank of Sweden in 1968. There are no prizes for modern pursuits such as electronics or computer programming. There will be no Nobels for Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. With no prizes in art, film or music, Sir Elton and Sir Paul also will be left out in the cold.How academic and scientific prizes handed out in a remote corner of Europe became the most prestigious awards in the world is testimony to shrewd marketing and investing by the people who run the Nobel Foundation. The “Swedish Rockefeller,” Nobel left 31.5 million kronor (about $200 million today) that is now worth about $500 million to the Nobel Foundation. There is also the mystique: the famous Nobel name with its noble ring, and the fact that a succession of Swedish kings have personally handed out the prizes since 1902.The Swedes, in spite of their somber reputation and countryside, really know how to throw a party. Or parties, for Nobel Week is an endless array of receptions, luncheons, get-togethers with the laureates, dinners, press conferences, concerts and operas, press conferences and lectures.The new laureates are treated like visiting royalty. All expenses are paid for laureates and spouses, including first-class airfare and magnificent harborside suites at the Grand Hotel, Stockholms finest. Not to mention the prize money of $1.4 million, split in half by Mather and Smoot. Each laureate is hustled around Stockholm in a stretch Volvo limousine (the rest of us followed along in buses), complete with driver and attendant – a necessity, Mather confided: “I wouldn’t have a clue where to go if somebody didn’t tell me.” The glittering Nobel Prize Concert was especially wonderful, a performance by American soprano Renée Fleming and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Lawrence Renes of the Netherlands. The king was in the royal box and the Laureates were lined up in the front row. Like all the events, it was a grown-up affair, men in dark suits and ladies in dresses. Along with sunglasses and sunblock, we had left our jeans and sweats at home.Culmination of Nobel Week was a somber and magnificent ceremony Dec. 10, the anniversary of Nobel’s death, when King Carl XVI Gustaf handed out Nobel Prize medals to each laureate individually – symbolic, it seemed, of an ancient anointing of warrior knights. Arrayed on the stage in the finest formalwear was a royal court of former laureates, Nobel officials, Queen Silvia and the three nearly perfect royal offspring.
The Nobel Banquet, along with dancing, afterward, was pure magic – “a golden evening,” “the most memorable night of my life,” former laureates have said. Cinderella’s Ball, the Academy Awards and Inaugural Ball all put together, it was an old-world evening of pomp and ceremony – and even a little fun. Jane Mather, John’s wife, looked like she was en route to heaven when the king himself escorted her to the dance floor. Around midnight the laureates and their entourages departed for the Nobel Nightcap, a looser, higher-stepping affair at the Stockholm School of Economics.Despite recent events that may have diminished our nation’s standing, you could not help but feel good as an American in Stockholm this year. Americans swept all the science awards and the economics prize. Edmund Phelps of Columbia University, the elegant economics laureate, tried to explain why at the laureates’ press conference. “Something has to be said for the American liberal arts college. Students in Europe are highly specialized by the time they’re 19. But American students have the benefit of cross-fertilization of ideas from many fields, probably leading to greater creativity. Europeans attending American colleges seem to get the same benefit.”And: “I don’t get the feeling that European corporations or institutions encourage entrepreneurship or creativity.”At the same press conference, Smoot was asked how his life had changed since winning the Nobel. “Well, now everybody thinks I know everything,” he said, “But, of course, I already did.” Naturally, I was on the lookout the entire week for signs of lingering animosity between Mather and Smoot. I saw none. Smoot and Mather were on their best behavior. Had the “Battlin’ Brainiacs” become lovable laureates? Basking in the Nobel glow, they were not saying. But the feud, which had left Mather barely able to speak to Smoot, even after his apology, for nearly a decade and a half, showed that even first-class scientists are as capable of bickering at the office as the rest of us.In the end, they won The Prize. Their lives have been authenticated. Another scientist, Mike Hauser, had been in charge of a third instrument aboard the COBE satellite that was not cited by the Royal Swedish Academy. In Stockholm for the ceremonies honoring Mather and Smoot, Hauser often wore a long black coat and black broad-brimmed hat. He resembled the spies who once appeared in MAD magazine – though in this case Hauser, an outstanding scientist in his own right, was the spy left out in the cold.
The Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for the science Smoot and Mather had undertaken – not for anybody’s hurt feelings. Per Carlson, chairman of he physics committee at the Royal Swedish Academy, said of the Mather-Smoot work: “It is one of the greatest discoveries of the century. I would call it the greatest. It increases our knowledge of our place in the universe.”But what is that place? And what is the universe, really? As Mather had pointed out in his Nobel Lecture, we have only seen or measured about 4 percent of it.What do we know with certainty? Only that the universe exists and is vaster than we can imagine, a great firmament of galaxies, stars, planets and people, endowed with a creative power of both simplicity and complexity, and suffused with an ancient glow of magnificent uniformity. Something like the Nobel glow that brightens the dim Stockholm sky every December.Author and journalist John Boslough lives in Snowmass Village. His books include “The Very First Light” and “Stephen Hawking’s Universe.”