The Very First Light by John C. Mather

I just finished a revised and updated version The Very First Light by John C. Mather (and John Boslough), subtitled: The True Inside Story of the Scientific Journey Back to the Dawn of the Universe.  This makes a great book to read during the International Year of Astronomy 2009 because it shows how modern day Galileos do their work, not with handmade telescopes, but with space probes that look backwards in time, capable of finding direct evidence to when the universe was just 300,000 years old.  I intentionally selected this book to be a sequel to my reading The First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg.  Both Mather and Weinberg won Nobel Prizes in Physics.

The Very First Light is the story of Mather’s development as a scientist, from graduate student to becoming the one of the lead scientists on the team that built the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) spacecraft, which collected data that validated basic ideas about the Big Bang theory origin of the universe.  The book chronicles how Mather got involved with doing experiments with balloon launched scientific instruments, that led to proposals for NASA to launch better instruments on sounding rockets, to designing a mission for the space shuttle that had to be redesigned after the Challenger disaster, to succeeding with a vast team of scientists that successfully orbited the COBE satellite with a Delta rocket that was so old and rusty that it had patches, but in the end the COBE team made discoveries that astounded the scientific world and proved what space based astronomy laboratories can do for the field of cosmology. 

In the revised edition of this book, Mather adds new information about his work on the James Webb Space Telescope, a telescope that could be more exciting than the Hubble Space Telescope.  (Follow the links to official NASA sites for each telescopes.)

I found The Very First Light to be a richly rewarding read into how scientists work and think.  Mather, along with his co-writer Boslough, make the story into a first person account, that quickly sketches pre-thesis discovery of the cosmic background radiation problem, to how a young scientist gets involved with NASA’s bureacacy and eventually goes to work on one of the most exciting scientific teams of the 20th century.  The book was too short for me, it could have been three times as long, and still I would have hungered for more details.

I’ve always wondered how those densely packed satellite probes are designed and built, and this book only roughly describes the process.  The book covers the three sensors of the COBE probe with NOVA science show level of details, but I ended up wanting a 13 part Ken Burns miniseries, the topic was so fascinating.   NASA does offer Legacy Archive for Microwave Background Data Analysis that has great detailed information on the COBE mission, as well as related probes that’s covered in The Very First Light for those people who want to know more.

When researching this review on the web, I noticed a lack of reviews for this book.  It first came out in the early days of the web, and the version I read is a revised edition published 9/29/08.  This book deserves more attention.  George Smoot, Mather’s co-winner of the Pulitzer, wrote his account of the COBE story in Wrinkles in Time, which appears to be out of print, but readily available used on Amazon and ABE.

JWH – 8/2/9

3 thoughts on “The Very First Light by John C. Mather”

  1. Well, you were successful in your review – I just ordered it 😉

    As an undergraduate I read Weinberg’s “The first three minutes” a couple of times, together with Kip Thornes ” Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein’s Outrageous Legacy”. It’s been a while since I have read a popular science book about a physics-related topic – I hope it will hold up to your hype 😉

  2. I’m half-way through “The Very First Light” myself and I find it a fascinating read. It really shows how science is really done in our days. I’m planning on reading George Smoot’s “Wrinkles in Time” to learn a different perspective on the same facts.

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