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APS fellow John C. Mather (NASA ) shared the 2006 Nobel Prize in physics with George Smoot (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory) for "their discovery of the blackbody form and anisotropy of the cosmic microwave background radiation." Mather and Smoot will split a 10M Swedish Kroner (~$1.4M) prize.
The Nobel Prize Committee cited the physicists for their work on the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) project. COBE revealed fluctuations in faint microwave signals from space that are remnants of the Big Bang.
Prior to the COBE map of the universe, it was unclear why the universe contained stars and galaxies rather than an evenly distributed dust cloud. Theorists had predicted that a sensitive measurement of microwaves from the sky would reveal minute temperature fluctuations, which represent variations in the density of matter in the early universe. It was proposed that denser portions served as seeds for galaxies that formed later. COBE was the first experiment sensitive enough to confirm the predicted temperature variations encoded in the map of the microwave background.
Mather and Smoot, together with other members of the COBE project collaboration, first announced the discovery Cosmic microwave structure at the 1992 APS April meeting in Washington DC. (See the 1992 press release announcing the COBE mapping breakthrough at www.aip.org/pnu/1992/split/pnu077-1.htm)
APS Executive officer Judy Franz was at the APS meeting fourteen years ago. "I remember attending the COBE talk in '92," says Franz. "We all knew it was exciting at the time. In recent years, people tended to ask not whether it was worthy of a Nobel Prize, but when the Nobel Committee would get around to presenting them with the award. I'm glad they finally ended the suspense."
"The COBE project was a very difficult and speculative experiment,"APS President John Hopfield added upon learning of the prize. "It was extraordinary to carry out the measurement so well. Mather and Smoot are richly deserving of the Nobel Prize. In these political times I add my fervent hope that our level of investment in US physical science research and education once again becomes adequate, and that American science may still be strong enough to receive such awards twenty years hence."
Further Information from the Nobel Prize Committee
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The American Physical Society is a non-profit membership organization working to advance and diffuse the knowledge of physics through its outstanding research journals, scientific meetings, and education, outreach, advocacy, and international activities. APS represents over 53,000 members, including physicists in academia, national laboratories, and industry in the United States and throughout the world. Society offices are located in College Park, MD (Headquarters), Ridge, NY, and Washington, D.C.