Willmar native to attend Nobel Prize ceremony in Stockholm

A former Willmar High School chess champion, who is now a physicist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, will be sharing the glory when the Nobel Prize for Physics is handed out Sunday in Stockholm, Sweden.

A former Willmar High School chess champion, who is now a physicist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, will be sharing the glory when the Nobel Prize for Physics is handed out Sunday in Stockholm, Sweden.

Dale Fixsen, who graduated from Willmar in 1974, was a key member of a team of scientists that studied the early origins of the universe.

Fixsen developed the crucial mathematical model for a component of NASA's Cosmic Background Explorer satellite, known as COBE. The satellite, which was launched in November of 1989, measured infrared and microwave radiation that gave scientists a look at the beginning of the universe and how stars and galaxies were created, according to an announcement by the Nobel Prize organization.

A NASA Web site said the data confirmed the Big Bang theory.

John Mather, who works at Goddard Space Flight Center, and George Smoot, who works at the University of California, Berkley, are receiving the Nobel Prize in physics for their work on the project.


Fixsen was one of a handful of project team members invited to attend the ceremony and week-long activities. "It's an honor to be part of that group," said Fixsen.

His family, which still has strong local roots, is also excited about Fixsen's trip to the Nobel Prize events. "There's a certain amount of pride that one of those farm boys can do something," he said with a laugh, referring to growing up on a farm near Svea with his three siblings and his parents, Opal and the late Harold Fixsen.

He said working on the farm and learning how to solve problems in the field helped prepare him for a career in math in science.

Opal Fixsen, who still lives on the family farm, took no credit for the success of her children -- who all have professional careers in science, medicine or engineering.

"It's the children God gave us, I guess. It's nothing I really did," she said. "I'm just thankful for them."

When reached at his Maryland home this week, Dale Fixsen spoke at length, and with great patience, about the complicated scientific mathematical model he developed for the "far infrared absolute spectrophotometer," which was one of three instruments used in the cosmic experiment.

The mathematic model Fixsen developed involved 2 billion measurements and mathematical equations with 6,000 unknown numbers. His model reduced the uncertainty of the measurements made by the spectrophotometer.

It allowed the spectrophotometer to make measurements with an uncertainty of 50 parts per million, rather than a 1 percent margin of uncertainty without his mathematic model.


He said he now wants to build a new satellite with measurement uncertainty of 500 parts per million.

"You need a little imagination and it's helpful to have a computer," Fixsen said of developing the formula. "I'm driven a lot by curiosity. Maybe more than others."

He typically starts with a "pad of paper and a pen" and "scribbles for a while" before trying the application on the computer.

The math model went through a number of phases. "There wasn't a single moment that said 'eureka, we have it,'" Fixsen said.

Working on the COBE project was professionally and intellectually challenging. There was also a spiritual aspect. Fixsen said it is both "arrogant and humbling" to say that scientists know what the universe was like billions of years ago because of the data provided by the experiment.

He said his religious beliefs are not threatened by the scientific data about the beginning of the universe. He said it's "God's work with His fingers. It's neat to see it." How God did the work, he said, is still unknown.

The COBE project began in 1974 and ended in 1994. Fixsen said he was one of the last five scientists to work on it, but the data it generated continues to be used.

Fixsen is continuing his work at Goddard Space Flight Center and is seeking financial support to build a new satellite that would be even better than the first one, and he is working on a telescope project that could replace the Hubble Telescope.


Fixsen and his daughter, Sarah, who is also a physicist, are also involved with another NASA project to examine the transition of the universe from its beginning to the shape it's in today.

He said the COBE project answered a few puzzles about the universe, but he said there are many more puzzles left to solve.

Carolyn Lange is a features writer at the West Central Tribune. She can be reached at or 320-894-9750
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