October 4, 2011

It was a little after 4 a.m. when 8-year-old Noa Perlmutter, half asleep and still in pajamas, made her way down the stairs of her family’s Berkeley Hills home.

 

Saul Perlmutter takes an early morning press call.
(Cathy Cockrell)

“I heard you won the Nobel Prize,” she told her dad, Saul Perlmutter, a UC Berkeley physics professor and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab senior scientist.

Like everyone else in the household, Noa had gotten the news second-hand. The Nobel Academy had originally called a wrong number, attempting to tell  Perlmutter the news. Instead,  he’d found out by phone from a Swedish reporter calling around 2:45 a.m. for an interview.

Shortly after that, TV news vans had begun pulling up in the dark and rain, and reporters were phoning the house — a riot of tubs of stuffed animals, tables piled with books, a child’s telescope and the sundry other signs of an active family. Perlmutter, in khakis and tennis shoes, calmly and patiently repeated himself for those in need of a quote, with hints of his Philadelphia roots evident in his speech.

He described his Nobel-winning research — on the expansion of the universe — as a “fun topic.” He also said that while he imagined this work “could lead to a prize, you can never count on it.”

Amid the chaos of the living room, Lynn Yarris from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory public affairs office urged Perlmutter to finish making personal phone calls and then eat something, in preparation for the long, grueling day ahead. “There’s going to be an insane crush,” he added.

Perlmutter, however, kept repeating his wish for a quiet celebration with family and friends before the day was over.

“He’s a really nice guy,” Perlmutter’s wife, Laura Nelson, said. “Physics teachers are often really cool. I think people do physics because they’re omnivorously curious about the world.”

Lingering at the house, which was still bathed in darkness and drizzle, Perlmutter continued to field reporters’ questions, many of which he already had answered several times.

Winning the prize was “a wonderful moment,” he told them. “I hope it motivates us all to dive into these questions that we can all solve together.”

Standing ovation at the lab

As the 10 a.m. press conference at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory approached, news crews from around the world jostled for position and more than 200 colleagues, friends and well-wishers crammed into the Building 50 auditorium to acclaim the newly-minted Nobelist.

 

Students surround the new Nobelist. (Robert Sanders)

Just outside, buffeted by the elements of a blustery morning atop the Berkeley hills, Perlmutter looked elated, awestruck and not a little sheepish at the reception awaiting him inside.

“Saul has been so surprised that there has been so much buzz,” said Perlmutter’s wife. “We’ve hardly had time to exchange two words since the phone call.”

As the first syllables of Perlmutter’s name floated to the back of the auditorium, the room erupted into rapturous applause and a standing ovation followed that roared to a crescendo of whooping and hollering.

Among the lab and campus faculty members and leaders flanking Perlmutter was Chancellor Birgeneau, who earlier had declared: “This is a very proud day for our campus as we celebrate Saul Perlmutter’s Nobel Prize in Physics. His research on the expanding universe is of momentous importance for the advancement of science and humanity. We heartily congratulate our 9th Nobelist in Physics and our 22nd Nobelist at UC Berkeley.” 

“I think you have to enjoy having your mind boggled to go into this field,” Perlmutter told the crowd.

 Reflecting his grasp of the grandiose and the granular, Perlmutter was quick to acknowledge the contributions of others – current and former colleagues, academic institutions, government agencies and even cultures past – that made possible his earth-shattering discovery.

 “Many, many cultures and civilizations have contributed bits of the concepts that we now use in our understanding of the universe, so it’s really a human story going far back,” Perlmutter said.

“This kind of result doesn’t come from a lone scientist in a lab coat walking down to a laboratory; it’s really the work of a whole community of people working together on ideas and concepts.”

 

Perlmutter with well-wishers Buford Price (center) and Alex Filippenko.

UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau lauded Perlmutter as an all-around academic committed to research and teaching. This past year, Perlmutter’s campus colleagues in the Academic Senate elected him a Faculty Research Lecturer because of his scholarly research.

 “One of the great aspects of Saul, of course, is that he’s a great researcher,” said Birgeneau, “but he’s also a great teacher and I, like all of you, feel blessed to have colleagues like Saul who cannot be bought by rich, private universities.”

Birgeneau added that “universities like Berkeley and national labs like LBNL are really the only places left in North America where this kind of profound work can be done.”

In addition to his Nobel-winning work, Perlmutter has been busy teaching a new generation to advance society and solve the world’s problems.

Ever the innovator, Perlmutter also worked with the College of Letters & Science to rejuvenate the undergraduate course “The Physics of Music.” The successful class, taught by Perlmutter, attracted several hundred students. 

“By investing in these kinds of activities and exciting the next generation, they get motivated to learn all different kinds of things,” Perlmutter said. “And while they may not become scientists, the things they will have learned by going through the positives of science are the things that help us move forward as society and solve all sorts of problems.”

Inevitably, a reporter wondered when Perlmutter would get his Nobelist’s parking permit, one of the international prize’s notable campus perks.  “I was assuming today,” Perlmutter replied, adding that “the only reason to win a Nobel Prize is so that you can park on campus.”

In answer to the reporter’s question, the Chancellor leaped up and presented Perlmutter with an NL (Nobel Laureate) parking permit.

Panel discussion, champagne toasts

 

Panelist Saul Perlmutter, left, Alex Filippenko, Alex Kim, Mark Richards
and Richard Muller.

Quick to use his new parking permit, Perlmutter pulled into an “NL” reserved space in front of UC Berkeley’s LeConte Hall to attend two afternoon gatherings in his honor.

A panel discussion focused on the nitty gritty of doing research, and how the results of the Supernova Cosmology Project came about.  Perlmutter, astronomy professor Alex Filippenko, physics professor Richard Muller, who was Perlmutter’s adviser when he was a graduate student, LBNL scientists Alex Kim and Peter Nugent, and Carl Pennypacker of UC Berkeley’s Space Sciences Laboratory were among those who drew an overflow crowd that included many undergraduates.

Chancellor Birgeneau, a physics professor, spoke at the event, praising Perlmutter and his team as well as the competing team that shared the Nobel Prize. He pointed out to the students there that such transformative discoveries are the result of years of dedicated and painstaking scientific testing and observation and are the fruits of great science.

The panelists spoke of a life that included working 48 to 72 hours at a stretch, hiding research results from competitors and the emotional ups and downs of scientific research.

Muller, who suggested the cosmology project to Perlmutter, praised him for his “two great qualities: his optimism and his persistence.”

Later, at a standing room-only reception in a LeConte conference room, Perlmutter was toasted with champagne by a crowd of about 150-200 people, including astronomy and physics faculty members and graduate students.

He lingered at the event, but said he could only stay until 5 p.m., perhaps honoring his vow to end his day with family.

— By Cathy Cockrell, Barry Bergman, Roibín Ó hÉochaidh and Robert Sanders