THE SKY WAS NOT THE LIMIT
It seems that Lady Luck and Lord Success were seated on the two shoulders of John Cromwell Mather ever since he entered the field of physics as a young man. His academic record was impeccable, and would inspire envy in most students. His professional career had a meteoric rise to that of a NASA star performer. By the time he got his Nobel Prize in Physics in 2006, he was already very famous. He had already earned all kinds of ribbons and epaulets. The Nobel Prize simply put a cluster of five stars on his cap. An adulating World Media could not get enough of him. And Stephen Hawking came through with the final appellation: John Mather’s was “the greatest discovery of the last century (the 20th century), if not of all times.”
So, not only did Mather top the likes of Einstein, Crick & Watson, … but possibly also Columbus and Magellan, Newton and Galileo,… you name ’em!
Let me give you just a tiny little plastic spoonful of taste of the linguistic bombast that reverberated round the World following the Nobel Prize. An earlier book by Mather, The Very First Light, was issued in an updated edition, with the following blurb, in part, on the back cover:
This gripping new edition, updated to include the latest developments in cosmology and the awarding of the Nobel Prize for the COBE project, provides a rare glimpse inside the world of big money, big egos, tense politics, and cutting edge technology that brought forth the most important scientific discovery of our era.
Well gosh golly gee I never! Just about the only earthshaking gripping thing they forgot to mention is that whole damn thing was a fraud, and Mather knew it! The “big money” was taxpayers’ money! And it was “the most important scientific” fraud “of our era.” The fraud was committed under the cover of such “cutting edge technology” that only one person in the whole wide World could penetrate it.
Anyway, following the announcement of Nobel Prize, John Mather was walking on Cloud Nine, floating above the stratosphere. He was giving talks with such titles as “From the Big Bang to the Nobel Prize and Beyond”. Life was good. It’s the truth, it’s actual. Ev’rything is satisfactual. Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, zip- a-dee-ay. Wonderful feeling, wonderful day, yes sir! …
Now NASA rose to the occasion. Their very own, homegrown Nobel Laureate needed to be recognized and anointed properly within the agency. On April 2, 2007, two major announcements were made. First, Alan Stern – a rocket-butt careerist space scientist who worked in the private industry – was appointed NASA’s Associated Administrator, one of the few No. 2 positions in NASA. He was responsible for nothing less than the Science Mission Directorate (SMD). The scientific establishment lauded this appointment. Stern then announced the creation of a new position, Chief Scientist of the SMD, and installed John Mather in it. He described Mather as a “legendary” scientist:
John Mather is a scientist of legendary reputation, technical ability and space science mission experience. His office will provide independent scientific advice to me to guide decision making regarding all aspects of the NASA science program.
Mather himself wrote thus of this appointment in his Nobel autobiography:
I am also broadening my perspective one more time, trying to learn about the entire range of space science, and helping to guide NASA science towards the discoveries of the future. On April 2, 2007, I will take on the job of Chief Scientist of the Science Mission Directorate of NASA, so I will have the opportunity and responsibility to advise NASA on the proper balance of scientific programs from Earth science to cosmology. The panorama of amazing research programs is almost overwhelming, and I am looking forward to seeing it.
The Stern-Mather duo, with full blessing and backing of NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, now represented the beginning of a new era for the SMD. Mather’s lecture circuit was as busy as that of Anthony Robbins. NASA put up a most impressive Government web site titled JOHN MATHER:: SPEAKING SCHEDULE.
Now pause a moment and appreciate the depth and the breadth of the discovery Mather made. Stephen Hawking was not exaggerating. What Mather did would extend the Book of Genesis all the way back to the original Origin. All other discoveries man has made pale in comparison. For John Mather now, the sky was not the limit. The gods pulled all the limits in his case.
AN INTERNET WEIRDO MAKES A POST
On April 5, 2007, I published a site on the Internet, alleging that Mather’s discovery was fraudulent. I sent the link to this site to appropriate email addresses in NASA HQ, the Physics Nobel Prize Committee, and a few other places. I also explained in my site why I resorted to Internet publication rather than submitting a paper in a refereed journal of the physics establishment.
I neither expected to receive, nor did I receive, any responses to the above emails. I also did not expect that there would be any impact of my site on the scientific establishment. I published and subsequently publicized my site simply because a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do. As time went by without any response to my site, I heightened the rhetoric and cast my net wider.
Nothing happened. John Mather continued to be feted by the World.
Not even a year went by since my site was posted.
On March 26, 2008, less than a year after Stern’s coming to NASA, his constituency woke up to hear that he had resigned from NASA! There arose great sadness and great lamentation from within the scientific establishment. A true friend of science was being booted out by a bureaucratic NASA. There was speculation that Stern had a falling out with his boss Michael Griffin. The two apparently had very different philosophies about which programs to prioritize. Stern would later confirm this speculation. From Griffin’s office, however, word was put out that Stern was doing things without telling Griffin. This would seem to suggest that the “resignation” was not 100% voluntary. Also, it was very sudden, and Stern did not have any comparable positions lined up. He simply went “back to the pavilion” – as they say in cricket. So what was really the reason behind Stern’s summary departure from the No. 2 post in NASA, with a shot at No. 1? Would any careerist jeopardize this situation over philosophy? There is room for great disagreements in philosophy in such quarters, and people do not have to leave because of them. And surely Griffin knew all about Stern’s philosophy when he hired Stern less than a year ago! Stern was a very well-known and active player in the NASA community.
Stern reportedly wanted to promote the cause of basic science from within NASA. He found himself in the appropriate power position to do so. But apparently, Griffin turned out to be an obstacle. In the Spring of 2008, an astitute careerist might have figured that a Democratic administration would come to Washington DC and Griffin would be gone from NASA. He would then have decided to lie low for just a bit, and not pick any precipitous fights with Griffin. Within a year, the obstacle would be gone and he would have a clear shot at what he wanted to accomplish.
In a New York Times article dated Jaunary 1, 2008, Stern is reported as saying, about scientists who were pressing him about fund issues and whom Stern had earlier rebuffed, the following:
“When they came to believe I was serious and had my boss’s backing,” Dr. Stern said, “they took it seriously. They quickly found a way to erase that bill.”
So it would seem that even as late as January of 2008, Stern had Griffin’s backing on whatever funding philosophy Stern was pursuing.
No matter how you look at it, the cover story does not add up. I think there had to be something more behind this.
As far as I can tell, Stern has not found any comparable positions to date.
Now, here is something even more strange, and more to the point. On the same day that Stern resigned, or within a day, John Mather resigned the Office of the Chief Scientist, SMD. His colleague Bob Park at the University of Maryland reported that Mather’s resignation was not connected to the Stern resignation. Even more strange, in the face of the shocking news, Mather told Bob Park that “his resignation was not at all abrupt.” Having resigned, Mather then declared that he will continue to spend time at the SMD “until further notice.”
Immediately following this, NASA issued a PR stating that Mather was being sent back to the Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD, and assigned to work full-time on the James Web Space Telescope (JWST). It was not explained why he had to vacate the Office of the Chief Scientist in order to do this. Both GSFC and NASA HQ are within Mather’s commute distance. Why could not he have kept the HQ post while attending to the JWST matter? The Chief Scientist, after all, was meant to be person who defined his own job. He was not a person who was to be “assigned” tasks. Anyway, the “further notice” came when this visionary and decorative office was quickly filled with another non-glitterati career scientist from within NASA ranks.
I have myself worked on LANDSAT and INTELSAT projects, and I have a pretty good idea of who does what when and at what stage in such programs. So this explanation does not hold water for me.
According to a Wikipedia entry, the status of JWST at this point in time was as follows:
The JWST program is in its Final Design and Fabrication phase (Phase C). In March 2008, the project successfully completed its Preliminary Design Review (PDR). In April 2008, the project passed the Non-Advocate Review.
So, all the scientific design work had actually been completed! There is no conceivable reason for pulling a NASA science leader off his job and send him back to GSFC to work full-time on the JWST. This cover story is completely transparent, and in my view, meant to be transparent.
And what is this with Mather “resigning” from the post of Chief Scientist and keeping the post of Senior Astrphysicist? I mean, really! People resign from an organiztion (as Stern did). People normally do not resign from one post within an organization and keep another post. If such a change occurs, it is an internal reassignment issue. You go to your boss and say: I don’t want to do this thing anymore. I want to spend my full time on that thing. That’s it! So why put out multiple Press Releases on this?
LET’S ANALYZE THIS
So what happened? If Mather’s resignation is unconnected to the Stern resignation, it could still be that Mather himself had a falling out with Griffin, perhaps over Mather’s pushing his favorite science projects. Griffin seems to be no shrinking violet, and he might have wanted his authority not challenged by a Prima Donna. This was my first take. But what happened subsequently caused me to rethink this.
THE SAGA CONTINUES TO UNFOLD
I noticed after this that Mather’s lecture circuit had petered out. He was no longer lecturing in the big ivory towers. Furthermore, all his NASA web pages stopped being updated. NASA PRs were no longer touting his further accolades. Why would Griffin stop these if all he wanted was to have Mather out of his hair?
I also noticed that Mather seemed to have fallen out of the airwaves which he permeated so much earlier. When he created the Mather-Nobel Prize with his own money and awarded this to a few summer-interning kids at GSFC, no major newswire seemed to have reported on it.
Things became a little clearer to me when on December 2, 2008, it was announced that Mather would be the University of Maryland Commencement Speaker. The announcements identified Mather as an Adjunct Professor at the University, and mentioned his NASA homebase only in describing him further. At the speech, C-SPAN made their routine video. Its leading screen identified Mather as Adjunct Professor, not as a NASA scientist or Physics Nobel Laureate. NASA own PRs, as far as I could tell, did not mention this high honor of his being a Commencement Speaker (which includes an honorary doctorate). This is a sharp contrast from the earlier days when Mather’s getting even something called the Robinson Prize from a UK university was big news in NASA PRs. One can reasonably reach a conclusion that Mather’s giving the Commencement Address did not have NASA’s full blessing. Mather is a Government employee, but in this case he probably was giving the speech in his private capacity.
I think it is fair to conclude that something is out of kilter here. Why has the great American superhero with a golden S emblazoned across his chest come to this place, without any protestations or comments from his powerful constituency, the academic physics establishment? Why, for example, is he today not sitting in a big academic chair in Harvard or Princeton? Does bureaucrat Michael Griffin have enough clout to render a great American hero a nonentity, for no reason at all? Definitely not.
Can two precipitous resignations at the highest level of the agency on the same day be unconnected? Why is it that neither cover story makes sense? Why is that subsequently, neither of the two brilliant shooting-star careers recovered? What could be a reason that would make NASA Management feel completely secure that they could defend these changes to anyone? Certainly, it was quite probable that they might have had to expalin things to the US Congress and President Bush. And why is it that no public inquiries were ever held?
So this article must end with a question: What’s up with John Mather?