Saul Perlmutter, who grew up in Mt. Airy, won the Nobel Prize for Physics (Photo courtesy of Lawrence Berkeley NAtional Laboratory).

by Len Lear

To Saul Perlmutter, “far out” (a popular expression in the 1960s) does not refer to something in another  city or state or country or even on Mars or Saturn. To Perlmutter, it is something in another solar system so many light years away, the rest of us mere mortals cannot possibly conceive it.

After all, Perlmutter, 52, a West Mt. Airy native who won a Nobel Prize for physics last week, studies supernovas, explosions of stars which cause a burst of radiation that often briefly outshine an entire galaxy before fading from view over several weeks or months (according to Wikipedia).

During this short interval a supernova can radiate as much energy as the sun is expected to emit over its entire life span.
“As soon as you consider any of these things,” said Perlmutter at a press conference in Berkeley, California, on Oct. 4, after his prize was announced, “your mind is boggled. I think you have to enjoy having your mind boggled.”

One of the world’s leading astrophysicists, Perlmutter, a West Mt. Airy native and graduate of Greene Street Friends School, Germantown Friends School, Harvard University (magna cum laude) and the University of

California Berkeley in 1986 (his Ph.D. thesis was titled “An Astrometric Search for a Stellar Companion to the Sun”), was awarded the Nobel Prize along with two other researchers, Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess.

With the honor came a monetary prize of about $750,000 for Perlmutter and about $375,000 for each of the other two honorees. Perlmutter is both a professor at UC Berkeley and an astrophysicist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where he leads the Supernova Cosmology Project.

Perlmutter and his team of researchers began studying supernovae in 1988 to measure the speed at which the universe was contracting. Schmidt and Riess began work with a competing team in 1994. Then, in 1998, both teams arrived at the same unexpected results.

By studying distant supernovae and using their brightness to determine the distance between stars at different points of time, they discovered that the universe was not only expanding, but doing so at a faster rate than ever before.

The changing wavelengths of light – which went from shorter blue wavelengths to longer red wavelengths over a period of time – radiating from the supernovae meant that they were moving farther away and indicated that the universe was in fact expanding. Previously it was believed that the universe was contracting.

Although it is almost certainly no exaggeration to call Perlmutter a genius, those who have known him over the years insist that despite his extraordinary scientific achievements, he is just a “regular guy” who enjoys having fun as much as anyone else.

Saul’s younger sister, Tova, 45, who also went to GFS and Harvard, is a social worker who was contacted by this reporter last Friday at her home in Michigan.

“Something about Saul that should be exposed to the public,” she said, “is that he loves, loves, loves party games, so much so that he invents them. He is great at charades, comes up with new ways for people to laugh themselves silly all the time, and generally makes parties goofy and relaxed.”

(Saul displayed his sense of humor at the press conference on Oct. 4. Reporters were clearly challenged to understand his explanation of his universe-expansion theory, but Perlmutter pointed out, to the laughter of those present, that “this is one of the few {current research} projects that I can at least explain.” … He also joked that the “only reason to win a Nobel Prize” was to receive the famous Nobel laureate parking permit, which is reserved for laureates on the Berkeley campus.)

Saul’s older sister, Shira, 55, also a graduate of GFS and Harvard who currently lives in London, England, told us by email, “Music has always been a big part of Saul’s life.”

“For many years he played violin in school or local orchestras and organized chamber groups and madrigal singing with friends at his house,” she added. “He has now passed on to his daughter, Noa, a passion for Gilbert and Sullivan in particular!”

(A lawyer who specializes in intellectual property law, Shira has been, among other things, a vice-president for Time Warner Corp., a law professor who has published numerous books and articles on copyright, a key member of the U.S. delegation that negotiated the two internet treaties, and the copyright consultant to the Clinton Administration’s Advisory Council on the National Information Infrastructure in 1994-95.)

Saul’s proud mother, Felice, a professor emerita at Temple University’s School of Social Administration and author of books relating to social work, also wanted Local readers to know that Saul is far from a one-dimensional scientist.

“Saul was always a very well-rounded student,” she said. “His interest in music, literature, history, etc., played an important part in his development. In fact, for his senior independent project at GFS, he played a Bach violin concerto. And this interest has continued to today as he is constantly seeking interdisciplinary collaboration for courses he teaches.

“He has developed a very popular course at UC Berkeley called The Physics of Music, which is very interdisciplinary in its approach. Saul is a very social person, and our home was always a center for his friends. In fact, to this day, when he comes east, all of his high school and college friends come together chez nous.”

Saul’s entire family was obviously a group of academic super-achievers. His dad, Daniel, is a professor emeritus of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also the author of the recently published book, “The Challenges of Climate Change: Which Way Now?” Dan and Felice currently live in Narberth.

Julia Vieland, long-time Chestnut Hill piano teacher, vividly recalls all three Perlmutter children.

“I gave piano lessons to the girls,” she said, “but didn’t have the privilege of teaching Saul because he studied the violin. I have many memories of the family and of Saul. I remember hearing that his classmates frequently asked him for help with homework and that he was always generous and patient with his explanations.”

Fred Calder, who was head of school at GFS when Saul was a student there (Calder left GFS in 1986), recalled Saul as follows: “Saul was a relatively quiet young man, much liked by all of us and highly focused on his work. Obviously, one can have no idea about a 17 or 18-year-old in terms of his ultimate achievements in the world of science, especially at the Nobel level, but if any of us had had to guess in those days, Saul would have been among the top contenders. In any case, it was an honor to be the Head of Germantown Friends when all the Perlmutters, Shira, Saul and Tova, attended.”

On a personal note, I had a job teaching English and math to fifthand sixth graders at Greene Street Friends School in 1967, but I never met Saul, who was in third grade there at the time. If I had known he was going to win a Nobel prize, I would certainly have gone out of my way to seek him out.

I’m not sure if most of us can appreciate just how astonishing Perlmutter’s work is. My own undergraduate degree was in natural sciences, which included a year of physics, and it was the hardest of all my science courses. And that was just basic physics. I, like most people, cannot imagine the difficulty of studying the things that Perlmutter practically inhales like oxygen every day. He is much closer to Einstein, Newton,

Galileo and Copernicus than to the rest of us.

Perlmutter is married to Laura Nelson, an anthropologist, and they have one daughter, Noa. You can see Perlmutter’s explanation of his research and the video of his press conference at www.LBL.gov.