Department of Energy

National Lab Scientists Win Nobel Recognition

October 6, 2011

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Dr. Saul Perlmutter, who won the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics, heads the Supernova Cosmology Project at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. It was this team along with the High-z Supernova Search Team which found evidence of the accelerating expansion of the universe.

Dr. Saul Perlmutter, who won the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics, heads the Supernova Cosmology Project at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. It was this team along with the High-z Supernova Search Team which found evidence of the accelerating expansion of the universe.

Science is all about opening eyes and expanding horizons. This week, Secretary Chu congratulated two scientists for their trailblazing work: Dr. Saul Perlmutter in the Energy Department’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who was recently named the winner of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics, and Dr. Daniel Shechtman, who is currently an associate scientist at the Energy Department's Ames Laboratory, for winning the 2011 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for the discovery of quasicrystals.”

“[Dr. Perlmutter's] groundbreaking work showed us that the expansion of the universe is actually speeding up, rather than slowing down," said Secretary Steven Chu, who was a 1997 Nobel Prize winner in Physics and former director at LBNL, in a statement congratulating the physicist. "Dr. Perlmutter's award is another reminder of the incredible talent and world leading expertise America has at our National Laboratories. On a more personal note, I am delighted about this well-deserved recognition and to have worked with Saul during the time I spent at the Berkeley Lab."

Berkeley Lab's Dr. Perlmutter, who shared the Nobel Prize with Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess, specifically studied a special class of exploding stars known as Type Ia supernovae and discovered that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate. These type of supernovae are all about the same brightness: They are thought to explode in about the same way, and so the dimmer they are, the more distant they are.

In studying distant supernovae, Dr. Perlmutter discovered that they weren’t slowing down as they moved away, but rather were zooming out at an accelerating rate. As Dr. Perlmutter found, that accelerating expansion seems to be happening on large scales, and it seems to be driven by a phenomena we now know as dark energy.

Scientists has measured that dark energy makes up some 70 percent of the mass-energy in the universe – a huge fraction of everything that’s out there. But they still don’t know what it actually is. As the Nobel Committee noted, “It is an enigma, perhaps the greatest in physics today.”

Dr. Perlumtter and his team also used the powerful supercomputers at Berkeley Lab’s National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) to hone and refine their data, to reduce potential experimental errors, and to improve the comparisons between near and distant Type Ia supernovae. This increased the confidence in their original results, which were utterly unexpected.

Meanwhile, Dr. Shechtman made his discovery at the U.S. National Bureau of Standards -- now known as the National Institute of Standards and Technology -- during a sabbatical from his role as the Philip Tobias Professor of Materials Science at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology.

“Dr. Schechtman’s discovery in 1982 not only led to a new field of quasicrystals, but also forever changed ideas about matter,” said Secretary Chu. “His important work underscores the impact of basic science research and I congratulate him for this well-deserved recognition.”