Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Coffee Cups and Supernovae: A Tribute to Saul Perlmutter, Nobel Laureate

I am sitting in the midst of my personal ever-expanding universe of cups and thinking about my high school friend, Saul Perlmutter, who just won the Nobel Prize in Physics.
Yep, I am going to say it; I knew him when...

Cup of the Day #89
Cosmological Cup by Gwyneth Leech
Colored India Ink on upcycled white paper coffee cup

It was 11th grade physics at Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia. I was terrified of word problems. Saul Perlmutter was a friendly kid in the class who happened to be super bright, generous and willing to help me. He had a way of explaining physics so that it all made perfect sense. I passed that class with flying colors and I owe it to him!

My favorite part of physics was undoubtedly all the space stuff - white dwarfs, red dwarfs, supernovae, black holes. Saul's too, I guess, since he went on to study astrophysics and become the supernova guy.

Hypergraphia cup galaxy  by Gwyneth Leech
at the Flatiron Building, NYC
October 2011

Saul was (and still is) gregarious and funny. In our senior year we were a couple, which essentially involved  going everywhere with a whole passel of his friends and mine - to the movies or piling into someone's living room to hang out and talk on a Saturday night. We went our separate ways in college - he to Harvard, then to Berkeley, I to the University of Pennsylvania, then on to Scotland to study art. But we kept in touch.

In 1988, with his freshly minted PhD in astrophysics and a job as a researcher at Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, supernovae took his fancy. He wondered if he could devise a computer program to scan the heavens for this rare kind of astronomical event - a task hitherto done only by certain human sky watchers around the globe with extraordinary visual memory. There was great skepticism amongst the sky watchers and astronomers about a computer's ability to match their skill.

Saul Perlmutter, 

The goal was to use the light of supernovae to measure the speed of the theoretical slowing down of the expansion of the Universe.

The computer program worked; automated searches began to find more supernovae than the human eye. But his team needed a lot of these events. In Saul's hallmark spirit of openness and collaboration, he made the supernova search software public on the premise that the more teams working on the project the better the results would be and the quicker they would get them. He then embarked on many years of traveling to telescopes in far flung parts of the globe and coordinating scientists.

More and more supernova data was gathered but it took ten years to get what they needed. Then it came time to plot the data and see if it confirmed Hubble's theory about the decelerating expansion of the universe. In what Saul calls "the long aha" - a realization made over months - they could only conclude that this classic theory was wrong:
The expansion of the universe is not slowing, but speeding up! And this is a discovery which turns on its head everything scientists thought they knew about the nature of the universe!!

Tycho's Supernova Remnant:

His wasn't the only team to make the discovery. Several teams of astronomers, using his supernova software and doing the same research, had come to the same conclusion. But they had cast themselves as his rivals and the race was on to publication. In 1998 they all published their results within weeks of each other - one group the first to present the findings at a conference, the other the first into a peer-reviewed journal.  Last week three teams were honored with the Nobel Prize in Physics. Saul got one half, the other two teams split the rest.

Over the last ten years Saul has been on an elusive quest to fund the construction and launch of a space telescope devoted to supernova research. In tough economic times the Government funding keeps getting deferred, the telescope gets shelved again and again.

We had the rarest of opportunities to sit down together for coffee this summer when Saul and his wife, Laura, a professor of anthropology, were on sabbatical leave in Princeton and came into the City to visit art galleries in Chelsea.  We met at Buongiorno Espresso Bar on 9th Avenue. To be precise, Laura and I had the espressos; Saul had orange juice. Nary a caffeinated beverage has ever passed his lips. Hmm, if I give up caffeine would I have a hope of thinking more like a Nobel Prize winner?

Talking about the telescope, Saul said that technological advances had lowered the price tag considerably. No longer a billion or so, but mere millions.

"Heck," said a mutual friend later when I shared this, "we should just pass the hat and buy the guy his telescope!" I'm game. I am more than willing to do a cup-drawing fund-raiser if it will help.
Saul, just let me know.

Ready to draw at the Flatiron
Hypergraphia by Gwyneth Leech, October 201

And as for his ability to help ordinary mortals understand physics, he still has it as can be seen from this recent video interview where he explains the science which made him a Nobel Laureate. Moreover, it is apparent that his enthusiasm for science remains undimmed; That is worthy of a prize all by itself.

Saul Perlmutter, Press conference, October 2011

1 comment:

  1. This is a great story, amazing that you went to high school with Saul Perlmutter, Nobel Prize winner in Physics! His work on supernovae is amazing, as is your work on those cups!

    Looking forward to stopping by soon,