Saul Perlmutter
Photo Credit: Lawrence Berkeley National Lab - Roy Kaltschmidt, photographer

As is almost always the case, the little human details were charming.

  • The Swedish reporter who awoke Saul Perlmutter with a phone call at 2:45 a.m. on October 4, asked him “How do you feel?” Perlmutter replied, “How do I feel about what?” It turned out that the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences had tried to call him earlier — on an old cellphone number a Swedish physicist had on his contact list. (The academy eventually got through on the right number at 3:15 a.m. Perlmutter’s wife Laura Nelson had in the meantime “pulled out the iPad” and tried to determine whether this was a hoax.)
  • As the Berkeley campus “color story” said, “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 the family’s Berkeley Hills home. ‘I heard you won the Nobel Prize,’ she said.” Read about the rest of Perlmutter’s day, from before dawn to closing time.
  • A reporter for the local blog Berkeleyside asked Perlmutter about a quiet but coveted perk — the lifetime “NL” campus parking permit reserved for Nobel Laureates. Perlmutter joshed, “It’s the only reason to win the Nobel Prize.”

That quote delighted the industry paper The Chronicle of Higher Education, which led its daily update with the jest (partly to drive traffic to its recent story on parking as a vanishing amenity of campus life nationally.)

Parking Permit for Nobelist

Talking about the discovery that led to the prize, Perlmutter said in a press conference that it was “the slowest aha moment you’ve ever heard” — months of sifting data on observations of supernovae that was not only contrary to expectations but contradicting the accepted physics to date.

(The next-most-recent Berkeley grad alum to win a Nobel, Carol Greider Ph.D. ’87 — the daughter of two Berkeley Ph.D.s — was awake and folding laundry when she got her call from the Swedish Academy telling her she’d won the 2009 Nobel in physiology/medicine.)

Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, a physicist himself, noted that Perlmutter’s prize is the 22nd won by a Berkeley faculty member, the majority of which, 13, were jointly appointed at the Lawrence Berkeley lab and at UC Berkeley — like Saul and “like myself, actually, except without the Nobel Prize. In fact,” he added, “I became chancellor as a consolation prize.” He continued, “You know, universities like Berkeley and national laboratories like Lawrence Berkeley National Lab are really the only places left in North America where this kind of profound work can be done, where we can pursue knowledge at its most fundamental level.”

Learn about dark energy — the strange, literally repulsive force that somehow makes up 73 percent of the matter and energy of the universe — from clear explanations by Saul Permutter on KQED Quest:

Love was in the stars and behind the wheel

Hannah & Onsi Fakhouri

As fate was leading Perlmutter along the way to his Nobel, Cupid was busy, and those he inflamed were earning Berkeley graduate degrees. The Quest dark-energy video was first broadcast in 2008. In one scene, two grad students — Perlmutter team memberHannah Swift and her friend Onsi Fakhouri — are observing data on the light emitted by supernovae. Onsi now has his astronomy Ph.D. and is a sotware engineer in San Francisco for Pivotal Labs; Hannah continues doing astrophysics research for Perlmutter (still her adviser), but her last name is now Fakhouri; she and Onsi married two years ago and live in Berkeley.

Gabriela Quirós

The winged cherub had already accomplished his amorous mission with Quest’s producer, Gabriela Quirós, who in 2005 wed music writer Andrew Gilbert, whom she met while both were earning master’s degrees in the Graduate School of Journalism. (Gabriela also acquired a master’s in Latin American studies.) Andrew gave Gabriela rides and — captured on film in a documentary she was making — tried to teach her to drive. He noted that “teaching someone to drive is very stressful.” She carried away a lesson: “You should never learn to drive from someone you love.”

Richard Muller
Richard Muller

Richard Muller Ph.D. ’69, Saul Perlmutter’s mentor and colleague, was also in the national media in recent months. Called in March to testify on global temperature trends before the House Committtee on Science, Space, and Technology, perhaps because he is seen as something of a maverick in his views on the subject, for which he takes potshots from the left, he bucked expectations in his testimony and presented data from his team and others confirming that a rise in human-caused earth temperatures is real and a subject of concern. The Scientific American interviewed him at length on the subject in June.

In October, The Atlantic magazine announced Muller in its list of Brave Thinkers 2011, its annual “guide to the people risking their reputations, fortunes, and lives in pursuit of big ideas.” Alphabetically, he came right before Barack Obama.