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You are here: Technology Science Saul Perlmutter
What if you tossed an apple into the air, and it never dropped back down? What if, instead, it kept accelerating upwards, eventually exiting earth’s atmosphere and rocketing into space on an infinite trajectory?

You’d have to reevaluate the laws of physics entirely.

Saul Perlmutter used this metaphor to describe the significance of the 1998 discovery that won him a Nobel Prize in Physics and shook the very foundation of our understanding of the universe.

Until that time, there had been two common hypotheses the fate of the cosmos. The universe was expanding—that much we knew—and most physicists assumed gravity was slowing that expansion down. Either the sum of all matter would expand indefinitely with increasing slowness, or it would eventually reach a tipping point and fall back in on itself.

So when Perlmutter and his team analyzed the data they had collected from studying type Ia supernovae and found that neither was the case—that the universe was in fact expanding at an ever-increasing rate—they assumed they’d made an error. They went back again, re-measuring and re-calculating, but their findings never changed. In 1998 Perlmutter’s research team, the Supernova Cosmology Project, announced their findings simultaneously with the competing High-z Supernova Search Team, giving astrophysicists a whole new set of mysteries to investigate. Ever since, scientists have grappled with the concept of dark energy, the still-unidentifiable force that pushes our universe apart.

Perlmutter first received news of his award at 4 a.m. on October 4, when his 8-year-old daughter Noa woke him to say she’d heard the news. Phones were ringing off the hook before dawn, and Perlmutter graciously endured incessant media attention right up through the Nobel Prize ceremony on December 10. He accepted the award—which he shares with Adam Reiss and Brian Schmidt of the High-z team—from the King of Sweden on a royal blue stage in Stockholm’s Concert Hall.

Perlmutter, a Philadelphia native, teaches at UC Berkeley. He is currently working on the SuperNova Acceleration Probe (SNAP) project, which aims to launch a space observatory that will investigate the precise rate of acceleration for universal expansion. He is also part of the team for the Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature (BEST) project, which is compiling comprehensive measurements of changes in the earth’s temperature in an attempt to resolve debates surrounding the evidence for climate change. After collecting over a billion meteorological records dating back centuries, the team released initial reports stating that global temperatures have risen about 1 degree Celsius since the 1950s. A full peer-reviewed study is still in the works.

For the moment, Perlmutter is back in San Francisco to wind down from the whirlwind of attention he’s received over the past few months.  And then it’s back to work, where he’s happy to pursue more groundbreaking research. As he explained during his Nobel Prize Banquet Speech, “The only thing better for a scientist than finding a crucial piece of a puzzle that completes a picture is finding a piece that doesn’t fit at all, and tells us that there is a whole new part of the puzzle that we haven’t even imagined yet, and the puzzle is bigger, richer, than we ever thought. “

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