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Nobel's Super Son

October 6, 2011 By:
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Saul Perlmutter

Felice Perlmutter always believed her son, Saul, was special and she often told anyone who would listen about his brilliance as a scientist. Listeners often nodded their heads politely, thinking her a typical Jewish mother.

But now that the Nobel committee earlier this week chose him and two colleagues, Brian P. Schmidt and Adam G. Riess, as recipients of the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics, Felice Perlmutter isn't looking quite so typical after all.

Contacted on Tuesday at her home in Narberth, the proud mother, who is professor emerita in social administration at Temple University, said that she and her husband, Daniel, himself professor emeritus in chemical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, were, of course, "very pleased.

"We've long believed it would happen," she said, "but it's still just overwhelming."

Saul Perlmutter, 52, a member of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory's physics division, was raised in the West Mount Airy section of Philadelphia. According to his mother, he attended Germantown Friends School and received his Jewish education at the now-defunct Folkshul that rented space in the former Akiba Hebrew Academy building in Bala Cynwyd.

He did his undergraduate work at Harvard and graduate studies at the California Institute of Technology before settling at University of California at Berkeley.

A profile in the Summer 2004 issue of Inside magazine, the Jewish Exponent's sister publication, discussed the evolution of the scientist's interest in supernovas and the expansion of the universe, the work which won him the top prize in his field.

Perlmutter recounted how in 1988, as a postdoctorate fellow, he and a colleague were talking shop. At that time, it was believed that gravitational forces were dragging on the universe, slowing down its expansion. Perlmutter wanted to test the theory, and see whether the universe might slow to a halt and eventually reverse, so that in a billion years or so, it would turn in on itself in what was called "the big crunch" -- a term that echoed the big bang theory that described the universe's beginnings.

"We were in a serendipitous position at the time," he told Inside magazine, "because our work up to that point gave us the tools required to make a practical measurement for such a fundamental question."

The scientist was referring to a specialized telescope that enabled him to search for rare IA supernovas. Because each of these ancient, exploding stars has the same relative brightness, any change in luminescence could be tracked to reveal the rate of the universe's expansion.

What Perlmutter found and discussed in a 1998 paper was that the universe was in fact expanding and doing so at an accelerated rate.

According to news reports, Perlmutter was to receive half of the $1.5 million Nobel Prize money, with the rest going to Schmidt and Riess.

And what was mom Felice Perlmutter's biggest conundrum when she heard the news Tuesday? She hadn't yet been able "to get through to Saul to congratulate him."

The proud Jewish mother just had to wait her turn, behind a slew of reporters and other well-wishers, to talk to her now-famous son.

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