UC Berkeley News


Nobelist George Smoot launches new center for cosmological research
A place for observationalists, phenomenologists, and theorists to study - and perhaps solve - enduring questions about the universe

| 06 December 2007

When Berkeley astrophysicist George Smoot received the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics a year ago, his dreams for spending his $700,000 share of the prize ran far beyond purchasing a sporty car or a new home.

Instead, he wanted to create a lasting center where he and other scientists - in particular, young postdoctoral researchers - could tackle cosmic questions whose solutions would be worthy of future Nobel Prizes.

Physicist George Smoot's substantial gift to the new Center for Cosmological Physics came from his Nobel Prize winnings. (Steve McConnell photo)

That dream, the Berkeley Center for Cosmological Physics, has now become reality with the announcement on Tuesday of a $500,000 endowment gift from Smoot and additional gifts totaling $8.1 million. These gifts include $1.5 million from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and $5.5 million in private gifts and other support for endowed chairs at the center and for postdoctoral and graduate-student support. Berkeley physics professor Saul Perlmutter, who, like Smoot, is also a researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), has also contributed to the center, using a portion of his 2007 Gruber Cosmology Prize to seed a fund for future research that, with the addition of other funds, will total approximately $600,000.

The recently announced Moore Foundation grant will provide the core operating support for the next three years to ensure a successful launch of the center and to support its most important assets: the highly qualified postdoctoral students, graduate students, faculty, and staff who will build this center of excellence.

At a LeConte Hall press conference Tuesday, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau recalled that "within 24 hours of winning the Nobel Prize in Physics, George Smoot came to me with the vision for this center and wanted to establish it the next day. It took one year, but here we are."

Smoot, the center's director, and the campus plan to raise at least $4 or $5 million in endowment on top of this $8.1 million to ensure an ongoing center with resident postdoctoral fellows and scholars at Berkeley and Berkeley Lab, an active visitors program, educational outreach to K-12 science teachers, and several collaborative international workshops on cosmology each year.

"It's an exciting time in cosmology," says Smoot, a professor of physics. "We're making breakthroughs that are tremendous intellectual achievements, and I really believe we have to prepare the next generation to follow in our shoes." These breakthroughs include the discovery of the seeds of today's galaxies in the infant universe, for which Smoot won the Nobel Prize; the more recent discovery that a mysterious "dark energy" is accelerating the expansion of the universe; and the realization that an enigmatic "dark matter" determines the large-scale structure of the universe.

Talking further on Tuesday about the rationale for creating the new center, Smoot said, "Just over a decade ago, we launched an era in precision cosmology in which we're getting to the point where we can actually make correct observations of the universe down to the percentile level." In this new era, he continued, "we have to combine the results of many different experiments, which means we need people who have the background and the knowledge in many different areas. The reason to create a center is because you need the group intellect and the teamwork to attack these kinds of problems."

The money has already allowed the center to hire three new postdoctoral fellows, who arrived this fall, and to advertise for two more fellows for fall 2008. In July, the center hosted its first workshop, "Physics in and Through Cosmology," at Berkeley Lab for high-school teachers and students. And the center's first annual international winter cosmology workshop, co-sponsored by the newly created Institute of Advanced Cosmology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, is planned for January 2009 in Mexico.

Nearly 50 Berkeley, Berkeley Lab, and visiting scientists have joined the center, along with nearly 20 postdoctoral fellows and a dozen graduate students.

"A center is really important in order to create a productive scientific environment," theoretical astrophysicist Hitoshi Murayama, professor of physics and one of the center's three deputy directors, said prior to Tuesday's announcement. "We really need to have an atmosphere where there's always something brewing, where people come in and talk to each other - that is the way new ideas emerge and the way science moves forward."

"We have such a huge and wide array of talented people in astronomy and physics, both on campus and up at the lab, and we've been dying for a cosmology center to draw everyone together," says theoretical cosmologist Chung-Pei Ma, professor of astronomy and another deputy director of the new center. "I'm glad George is able to kick-start it."

Smoot shared the 2006 physics Nobel with John Mather, a NASA scientist who collaborated with him on the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite, which was launched in 1989 to study the radiation emitted by the early universe only 300,000 years after its birth 13.7 billion years ago. Mather confirmed that the microwave background radiation, a low-temperature glow amidst the brighter glow of stars and galaxies, matched perfectly the spectrum of colors that astronomers predicted if the universe formed in a cosmic explosion called the Big Bang.

Smoot's instruments aboard COBE went even further, measuring the minute fluctuations in the microwave glow across the sky. These fluctuations, equivalent to 10-millionths of a degree variation in the 2.7 degree Kelvin temperature of the microwave background, betrayed slight variations in density of the early universe that grew over billions of years into the clusters of galaxies we see today.

Physicist Saul Perlmutter donated money from his share of the 2007 Gruber Cosmology Prize to the new cosmology center at Berkeley. (Steve McConnell photo)

Since then, the era of "precision cosmology" has blossomed, with balloon experiments such as MAXIMA (Millimeter Anisotropy eXperiment IMaging Array) and BOOMERANG (Balloon Observations of Millimetric Extragalactic Radiation and Geo-physics) and satellites such as the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) confirming COBE's findings and providing more detail on conditions in the early universe. Berkeley and Berkeley Lab played a key role in both the MAXIMA and BOOMERANG experiments. Smoot is a partner on another satellite, Planck, that will be launched in 2008 by the European Space Agency to study the universe's "first light" in even greater detail.

Meanwhile, Perlmutter developed a new technique to find and study supernovas in the distant universe and found evidence that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, rather than slowing, as might be expected after its birth in the Big Bang. This startling finding, reported simultaneously by Perlmutter's group and another group involving Berkeley astronomers, implies a "dark energy" permeating the universe about which scientists had no inkling.

Perlmutter shared this year's Gruber Cosmology Prize, among other honors, for this discovery. Currently, he is co-leading an international group of scientists proposing a SuperNova/Acceleration Probe (SNAP) to explore the history of the universe's expansion and hopefully discover what dark energy is all about.

"The first decade of this century is the first period in human history when the ideas from theorists and the technologies have come together to let experimentalists make precise measurements that can address such deep questions, and Berkeley is the home of so many of those developments, both on the theory side and the experimental-techniques side," Perlmutter says.

"Berkeley has always been a very fertile source for many of these ideas and discoveries, and it's great to now recognize that in the form of a new center."
Thanks to these experiments and others, theorists will soon have new data to test their hypotheses about dark matter and dark energy, and the grand unified theories, or GUTs, that link the quantum world of interacting subatomic particles to the gravitational world of interacting stars and galaxies.

"As data comes in and gets more and more precise, it starts to squeeze the theory," allowing scientists to home in on theories that best explain nature, says Murayama.

Smoot hopes that the new center will become a place where observational cosmologists like himself, phenomenologists like Ma, and theorists like Murayama come together with observers to solve the big questions of 21st century cosmology. These questions include whether the fundamental constants of nature, such as the gravitational constant and the fine structure constant, vary over time; whether and how inflation happened a split-second after the Big Bang; and why the universe has more matter than antimatter.

Then there is Smoot's own search for cosmic strings, which are proposed relics of the Big Bang, and the search for extra dimensions beyond the well-known spacetime four.

"Berkeley has a unique combination of people and projects that span from the earliest epochs to the present, both in theory and observations," says Smoot. "Berkeley has been the pioneer and leader in this area, and could continue to be with the center in place."