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Berkeley physicist Perlmutter wins Shaw Prize for work on expansion of universe

– University of California, Berkeley, physicist Saul Perlmutter has been awarded the 2006 Shaw Prize in Astronomy for his role in discovering that the universe is expanding faster than previously thought.

Saul Perlmutter
Saul Perlmutter

Perlmutter is a UC Berkeley physics professor, an astrophysicist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and leader of the international Supernova Cosmology Project.

He shares the $1 million prize with Adam Riess of NASA's Space Telescope Science Institute and Brian Schmidt of Australia's Mount Stromlo Observatory, all recognized for their leadership of two teams, the Supernova Cosmology Project and the High-z Supernova Search. In 1998, the teams reported the acceleration of the universe.

Riess was a UC Berkeley post doc with campus astronomy professor Alex Filippenko when he made the discovery for which he is being honored. He was a prominent member of Filippenko's High-z Supernova Search, an international team of astronomers. Riess produced the bulk of the analysis for the team's study.

Filippenko's supernova experiment began in the mid-1990s when he, Schmidt of the Mount Stromlo and Siding Spring Observatories in Australia, Nicholas Suntzeff of the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, and numerous colleagues began searching for Type Ia supernovas at large distances and measuring the speed at which they are receding from us. Type 1a supernovas are exploding white dwarfs — burnt-out, Sun-like stars at the end of their lives — and by measuring their apparent brightness, scientists can calculate how far away they are.

In a universe that is slowing down, distant supernovas -- ones that exploded billions of years in the past — should be moving faster than nearer and more recent supernovas. But Filippenko's group and Perlmutter's LBNL group reported just the opposite at a meeting in February 1998 that drew national attention to the findings. At the time, The New York Times quoted UC Berkeley astrophysicist Richard Muller as saying, "This is one of the top astronomy discoveries of the century, certainly of the decade. It's worthy of a Nobel Prize."

The Shaw Prizes, called the Nobel Prizes of the East, have been granted annually since 2004 in the fields of astronomy, medicine and life sciences, and mathematical sciences. The prizes were established by Run Run Shaw, a Hong Kong motion picture and television producer.

The prize will be presented in a ceremony in Hong Kong on Sept. 12.

For more information: Saul Perlmutter's website