UC Berkeley News


A Nobel week, so far: The Berkeley connection

| 04 October 2006

John Mather (Photo courtesy NASA)
As of Tuesday, three of this week's four Nobel Prize winners could claim a UC Berkeley connection. George Smoot, the focus of much campus excitement following the announcement on Tuesday that he was co-winner of the physics prize, is of course a much-honored professor of physics here and a well-known figure at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. His co-winner, John Mather of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., earned his Ph.D. in physics here in 1974 … with a 4.0 GPA, no less. His thesis adviser, physicist Paul Richards, said that the work for which Mather got the Nobel resulted from the thesis project Richards assigned him in the early 1970s.

"I was absolutely delighted with the Nobel Prize selections," he said. "They're both great scientists. I'm closer in some ways to John because of the student-mentor relationship. But I think it's a great prize: It's good for astrophysics and very good for Berkeley."

One day previously it was announced that the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine would be awarded to two researchers, one of whom — Andrew Fire, a Stanford University geneticist — is an alumnus of Berkeley's mathematics department, having whizzed through Cal in a mere three years before moving on to graduate school at the age of 19.

Andrew Fire (Photo courtesy Stanford University)

Fire, who grew up in Sunnyvale, entered Berkeley at the age of 16, lived his final year in International House, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa in 1978 with "highest honors in mathematics and distinction in general scholarship." He was one of two students in 1978 to share the department citation, which is given to the top graduating student.

Math professor Marina Ratner, who taught Fire in a graduate-level general-topology class when he was just a sophomore, described him as "brilliant." She tried to convince him to stay in mathematics even though he was taking more and more biology courses.

"Andrew told me that he loved math and was taking it for fun," Ratner recalls.

Fire obtained a Ph.D. in biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1983.