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Updated: Nobel Prize News Wakes Berkeley Professor

By Jeff Shuttleworth(BCN
Tuesday October 04, 2011 - 04:52:00 PM

University of California at Berkeley professor Saul Perlmutter won the Nobel Prize in physics today by being part of a team of scientists who discovered that the universe is expanding at an ever-accelerating pace. 

And now Perlmutter's fame is expanding at an ever-accelerating pace as well. 

Perlmutter, 52, told about 150 people at a news conference at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where he is a faculty senior scientist, that he was wakened at 3 a.m. by a reporter who asked him how he felt about winning the prize along with two other scientists. 

He said he spent about an hour wondering if it was a hoax as "reporter after reporter" called him, but he finally got a call from Nobel Prize authorities in Sweden who officially told him that he had in fact won the prize. 

Perlmutter, a native of Champaign, Ill., who earned his doctorate from UC Berkeley in 1986, will get half of the $1.5 million prize. The other half will be shared by Adam G. Riess, 41, of Johns Hopkins University and Brian Schmidt, 44, of Australian National University's Mount Stromlo and Siding Spring Observatories. 

Perlmutter heads the international Supernova Cosmology Project, which pioneered the methods used to discover the accelerating expansion of the universe, and has been a leader in studies to determine the nature of dark energy. 

Riess and Schmidt are members of the competing High-Z Supernova Search team. 

Joining Perlmutter at the news conference, UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau said Perlmutter is the 22nd Berkeley faculty member to win a Nobel Prize and the 13th Berkeley Lab member to be a winner. 

Birgeneau said, "There wasn't a eureka moment" in which Perlmutter and his colleagues made a quick finding but instead "it took decades of work that went against the conventional wisdom and they did the hard science necessary for a great discovery." 

Perlmutter, a balding, bespectacled man who spoke with a smile and great energy, said scientists had previously thought that the universe was slowing down and "could come to a halt someday." 

But he said he and his colleagues found that the universe is in fact speeding up. 

Perlmutter said his team spent months confirming their findings before they announced their breakthrough because they wanted to make sure they were correct. 

"It was the slowest 'aha' moment in history," Perlmutter joked. 

He said the acceleration of the universe is thought to be driven by dark energy, but there is still much that remains to be discovered. 

"Science is a method, not a finished product," Perlmutter said, adding, "We don't know if we can do something magical" with his group's findings. 

In announcing the prize, the Nobel committee said the discoveries by Perlmutter, Riess and Schmidt "came as a complete surprise even to the Laureates themselves." 

But the committee warned that their findings indicate that the universe probably "will end in ice." 

Perlmutter lives in Berkeley with his wife and daughter and thanked them "for putting up with me" when he "disappears for nights on end" and works around the clock on his research. 

Commenting on his approach to his work, Perlmutter said, "You have to enjoy having your mind boggled to go into this field. It's part of the joy of it." 

Another part of the joy of winning the Nobel Prize for Perlmutter is that Birgeneau handed him a parking pass that entitles him to park for free anywhere on the UC Berkeley campus, a privilege that's reserved for Nobel winners. 

Perlmutter joked, "Now it's all been worthwhile!"