Berkeley physicist one of four Jewish Nobel Prize winners

U.C. Berkeley physicist Saul Perlmutter has added another prize to his already formidable collection, this one the most prestigious of all.

On Oct. 4, Perlmutter, 52, was one of three U.S.-born scientists awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for discovering that the expansion of the universe is accelerating.

Perlmutter, an astrophysicist at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a professor of physics at U.C. Berkeley, heads a research group called the Supernova Cosmology Project. He will split the $1.5 million prize with Adam Riess of Johns Hopkins University and Brian Schmidt of Australia’s Mount Stromlo Observatory, whose team competed with Berkeley’s in the race to discover the nature of the “dark energy” at the root of the universe’s accelerating expansion.

Nobel Prize winner Saul Perlmutter at his home in Berkeley. photo/ap/paul sakuma

Perlmutter is one of four Jewish scientists to win Nobel Prizes last week.

As media outlets jumped on the story, the Associated Press was tickled that the Nobel committee had listed a wrong phone number for Perlmutter and had to send a Swedish reporter to wake him up with the good news. And the Bay Citizen was charmed by Perlmutter’s delight at being handed a Cal campus parking permit, a privilege awarded to the school’s 22 Nobel laureates.

“Now,” Perlmutter reportedly deadpanned, “it’s all been worthwhile.”

Never mind that the guy spent a generation investigating the nature of the universe.

Perlmutter and his colleagues formed their cosmology group in 1987, observing distant supernovae to determine whether the universe’s expansion is speeding up or slowing down until it will eventually reverse and collapse into itself.

In 1998, they found the former to be true, positing a version of the end of time that the San Francisco Chronicle described as a universe that “will expand with greater and greater speed until everything everywhere is cold, dark, and alone.”

The discoveries “have helped to unveil a universe that to a large extent is unknown to science,” said the Nobel citation.

“The original project began because we know the universe is expanding,” Perlmutter told the AP. “Everybody had assumed that gravity would slow down the expansion of the universe and everything would come to a halt and collapse.

“The big surprise was it was actually speeding up.”

Perlmutter already has been awarded other prizes for his work, including the 2011 Albert Einstein Medal, which he shared with Riess; the $1 million Shaw Prize in Astronomy in 2006, which he shared with Riess and Schmidt; the Department of Energy’s E.O. Lawrence Award in Physics for 2002; the California Scientist of the Year Award in 2003; and the John Scott Award and the Padua Prize in 2005.

Meanwhile, on Oct. 5 Daniel Shechtman, 70, a distinguished professor at the Technion–Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, was awarded the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his discovery of quasicrystals, mosaics of atoms that form regular patterns that never repeat themselves.

Shechtman, who receives $1.5 million for winning the prize, also is an associate at the Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory and a professor at Iowa State University.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said Shechtman’s 1982 discovery of quasicrystals changed the way chemists look at solid matter.

“I would like to congratulate you, on behalf of the citizens of Israel, for your award, which expresses the intellect of our people,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Shechtman in a congratulatory phone call. “Every Israeli is happy today and every Jew in the world is proud.”

Earlier in the week, Ralph Steinman and Bruce Beutler were named as Nobel Prize winners for medicine for discoveries about the immune system. Half of the prize money was awarded to Steinman, with the other half to be split between Beutler and biologist Jules Hoffmann.

Steinman will receive the prize posthumously; he died three days before the Nobel committee made the announcement. Usually the committee only awards living people, but the decision was made to go ahead in this case with Steinman’s recognition. — jta & j. staff