July 29, 2010
Earlier this year, astronaut Piers Sellers contacted Nobel-Prize-winning physicist John Mather to see whether or not he would be interested in lending his 2006 medal to the space shuttle Atlantis for his upcoming trip to the International Space Station.
Mather’s winning work involved measuring “cosmic background microwave radiation” using the COBE satellite launched by NASA in 1989. Mather and his partner, George Smoot, found that the spectrum of the radiation measured matched that predicted to result from the Big Bang, confirming the validity of this theory of the inception of the universe.
Upon receiving the medal, Mather requested that three replicas be made for his colleagues at NASA and the Air and Space Museum. In a process unknown to those unlucky folk not to have won a Nobel Prize, the Nobel committee produces replicas for winners that are not identical to the original medal, but are still valuable and genuine.
Thrilled by Sellers’ idea, Mather contacted the museum, which had the only replica of the Nobel Prize medal not ensconced in thick plastic; such materials could potentially release harmful fumes inside the enclosed space shuttle. Although at the time the museum staff were suffering through the infamous Washington, D.C. Snowpocalypse of 2010, they were able to access the medal and send it off to Sellers, embedded in a box approximately the size of a refrigerator. After briefly contemplating several options for what to do with such a large object in the space shuttle (put a “hood” on it? Bust the medal out with a hammer?), the medal, its oversized carrying case, and Sellers — resigned to find room for the box– were off to space.
John Mather’s 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics medal isn’t the only one that’s been on an epic journey. Many medals have crossed multiple oceans and continents. German scientists James Franck and Max von Laue even dissolved their medals in nitro-hydrochloric acid to prevent them from being confiscated by the Nazis during World War II. (After the war, Danish physicist Niels Bohr extracted the gold from the solution and the medals were recast.)
But while von Laue and Franck’s medals may have lived through two incarnations, Mather’s medal is the first to have traveled beyond the terrestrial realm and into the reaches of outer space.
Sellers returned the replica to Mather in a presentation Tuesday at the National Air and Space Museum downtown. Standing before a large crowd, Mather recounted his first visit to the museum, when he “felt tears rolling down” his face at the sight of such innovative exploration and discovery.
“The lives of museum objects don’t end when they get to the museum,” said Margaret Weitekamp, a curator in the Division of Space History at the National Air and Space Museum. “They continue as they are rebuilt or restored…or even as they’re flown into space.” Only time will tell where Mather’s Nobel medal may shove off to next; but for now, we’ll be content to know that it’s home safe in the collections of the Smithsonian.
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