Saul’s, Brian’s, and Adam’s chair
On the morning of Saturday, December 11, I walked down to the Nobel Museum, planning to have lunch with Shane Burns (my college thesis advisor at Harvey Mudd, and later a collaborator when I was a post-doc at LBNL). Because the English “tour” (really, lecture with people standing around) was starting just as I got there, I went along on that. Among other things, I learned that while there are 800 some-odd Nobel Laureates, only just over 40 of them are women. The Nobel Museum is only 10 or 20 years old. They have a rotating exhibit; right now, there’s one about Marie Curie. (Ironically, even though the fraction of female Nobel laureates is small, Marie Curie is probably the most iconic physics laureate.) When the museum opened, and some laureates first showed up, they realized that they ought to have a guest book; they hadn’t planned to do that, so at the last minute they decided to make the cafe the guest book. Somebody grabbed a white paint-pen, and got the laureates to sign the bottom of a chair. Now, if you turn over a chair, you can find signatures of laureates. (At lunch, I sat on the chair signed by David Gross. I felt very asymptotically free, and very colorful.)
At lunch, I chatted with Shane, sharing war stories about teaching on the block system, and telling him a little more about Quest. Shane teaches at Colorado College, the school that (decades ago) pioneered the idea of the block system, and the place Quest got the idea from. We also shared some stories about being bitter about tenure denials of years past. Shane was denied tenure at Harvey Mudd. I asked him if he was still bitter; he said he had been, but when he started at CC, he got over it. He’s much happier at CC (among other things, he and his wife would much rather live in Colorado than Southern California), and it’s where he always wanted to be. I feel similarly about Quest. I wouldn’t say I’m over my bitterness from Vanderbilt (the experience of which provided so much great fodder for this blog during its glory days), but Quest is much more the sort of place that I’ve always wanted to be. (I just hope that stupid Canadian immigration doesn’t prevent me from staying there long-term.)
Shane and I in front of a Marie Curie quote
After lunch, I hoofed it back to the hotel to put on my tails, and my way-too-tight shoes. I have a pair of shiny black shoes that I wear with my tux… although my use of the present tense is perhaps somewhat deceitful. While I’ve worn my tux recently, I’m not sure I’ve worn these shoes in over 10 years. And, just like the Universe, I’ve expanded in the last 10 years. Yes, most of that’s at the waist, but when you get fat, you get fat everywhere. (This can lead to sleep apnea, it turns out, as you get fat on the inside of your windpipe.) What’s more, I brought thick black socks, for very rational reasons. (Sweden, winter, ergo thick socks.) My feet were crushed in them, and I was in intense pain throughout much of the evening, especially when I had to stand up. At dinner, I took off my shoes (my feet were under the table, and nobody knew, so I didn’t get ejected), which was quite nice.
From there, I went down to the Grand Hotel to pick up the bus for the Nobel Ceremony. It was quite nice. There were a lot of very well-dressed people about. Down on stage, there were chairs on one side for the Swedish Royal party, and chairs on the other side for the laureates. (That is, except for the three Peace laureates, who are three women from Africa and the Middle East, honored for their work in improving womens’ rights. The Nobel Peace Prize is presented in Oslo, Norway, each year, as it’s a committee formed by the Norwegian Parliament that chooses the Peace laureates.) Behind them were chairs for what I assume were members of the committees that choose all of the Nobel prizes.
Left, front: a bunch of white guys about to get their Nobel Prizes. Right: front: the Swedish Queen, King, and Crown Princess.
I have to admit that I wanted to jump up and down and cheer and shout when Saul got his Nobel. Not only was it personally very exciting, what with my having been one of the core members of the team when we were doing the supernova searches and the analysis the last year or so before the announcement, but the man really deserved it. Yeah, in a sense, we all deserved it, and indeed we all got some recognition four years ago with the Gruber Prize. But, it was Saul who created this field. Adam and Brian, the two from the other team who shared the prize with Saul, also deserved it. They made an independent measurement of the acceleration, and the fact that there were two teams that came out with the measurement at the same time is the reason that people took the measurement as seriously as they did when it first came out. However, Saul was the one who was pushing it in the early days, back in 1988, and who persevered in pushing it through what sounded like several very early trying years. He kept pushing it, cajoling observatory time allocation committees to allow him to schedule the time the way he needed, even as some members of what would become the other team were still swearing up and down that it couldn’t be done. I seriously doubt I would have had the perseverance to stick with the program for so long, taking four years before even one supernova was discovered, and another two before a batch of a mere 7 were discovered, and another three after that before the answer that he’d been looking for all along came out. But Saul is extremely optimistic, and extremely perseverant.
Saul Perlmutter getting his Nobel Prize from the King of Sweden
I do have to admit, I took the opportunity to give in to my jetlag during the ceremony. Except for the first speech, all of the rest were in Swedish. My knowledge of Swedish is less than my knowledge of Klingon, for at least I know one word in Klingon. (“Kaplah!”) We did have booklets with translations of the speeches. However, I could read those faster than those giving the speeches could say them, so I had a bit of time after each one to doze off…. As I write this, it sounds pretty horrifying to say that I napped during the Nobel prize ceremony, but, well, it was practical! I was always awake as the King gave each prize. (Everybody in the room stood up when the King stood up. I would hate to be King.)
After that was the Nobel Banquet, which was quite an exercise in pomp and circumstance. The banquet was in this huge hall at City Hall, which is nicely designed to look like an outdoor venue. The (very high) ceiling is a projection screen, on which are projected vaguely cloudy-looking things, and the inner walls look like outside walls of Swedish buildings, so the illusion is quite effective. (Yes, I couldn’t help making a comparison to the ceiling at Hogwarts.)
The room where we had the Nobel Banquet (after it was over)
The Hogwarts-style ceiling
During the three-course meal, there were some ballet/theater/music numbers, where performers would move through the room and do… something. I didn’t completely follow what was going on, but it was fun. As they were finishing, an extremely efficient regiment of waiters would come, stand by every table, and then, all at once, serve everybody. I’ve been at many big events where the head table is served… and by the time the last table is served, the people at the head table have already finished, gone home, had a full-night’s sleep, started their next day, quit their job, and moved to another city. Not here. Everything was very efficient, very synchronized, and very well managed by the professional cadre of waiters.
Dessert had red hair
The dinner was quite good. Others at the table who I guess are much more into gourmet food than I was were poo-pooing it (“only a three course meal”), but hey, it was way better than I usually eat!
After that was over, there was “dancing in the Golden ballroom”. On display were the medals and individually customized diplomas for the laureates. Had security not been watching, I would have grabbed a snapshot of it. (Indeed, we were not supposed to take pictures at all during the banquet, but I figure, what’s the point of being an iconoclast if you can’t take pictures when you aren’t supposed to?)
From there, we retired to the University of Stockholm, where the students there put on the nightcap ball. This was a huge party and masquerade, attended it seemed mostly by undergraduates. Some people were in quite interesting costumes. There was a huge array of themed rooms, with different things going on in different rooms. Because my feet were utterly killing me, I spent a bit of time sitting in one place listening to a nice jazz combo. Later on, in another room, I found a stage where a string quartet plus a clarinetist (all with painted-on masks on their face) started playing the Mozart Clarinet Quintet. They were really quite good, but alas being in a party room where everybody was talking, I was able to sort of hear them standing right next to the stage. Saul, a violinist himself, was elsewhere in the same room; he didn’t even realize that the chamber group was there playing. Sadly, I didn’t get to stay to hear them complete even the first movement, because the SCP had planned to take more group photos at 1:15 AM.
Masqued Swedish students playing the Mozart Clarinet Quintet
A Well-Dressed SCP Staircase Photo in need of some image processing to balance the contrast in the front and back
Next followed group photos. We started with what is a bit of an unofficial occasional SCP tradition: the staircase photo. We then did photos standing around, and then every conceivable combination of people had their picture taken with Saul. (I told Saul he was going to have to sign each and every one of the photos later.)
At 2AM, I took a taxi home, and took off my shoes, and then goofed off a bit on the computer to unwind. Ufda. My feet still hurt the next day. Excedrin helped me sleep through the night… that is, insofar as sleeping from 4AM to 8:30AM is “through the night”. I sense a nap coming on.
A month ago, when I was in the throes of my third block in a row and reaching the burnout stage that all professors who teach on the block seem to at the very least flirt with when that happens, I was considering not coming. I’m not somebody who loves to travel, and having to deal with getting (and paying for…) the formal wear and all of that made the thing seem a bit like a pain. But, I’m extremely happy that I’ve come. It’s been great catching up with members of the SCP (including chatting with Brad Schaefer about our mutual student, Andrew Collazzi, who did research with me as an undergraduate at Vanderbilt and just recently finished his PhD with Brad at LSU). The pomp and circumstance surrounding all of this is, really, a little bit silly (much as the Academy Awards in the USA are silly, or even for that matter the Presidential Inauguration), but it’s a good kind of silly. It’s celebrating the furthering of human knowledge, which is a great thing to celebrate. And, it’s all a very classy kind of silly. Except for my still-tingling feet, I thoroughly enjoyed it, and although it’s barely over 12 hours later, watching Saul being given that Nobel Prize is one of those life events I wouldn’t want to have missed.
(Some of the) people who were in Berkeley during the 1997 push to complete the analysis that led to the discovery of the accelerating Unvierse. Front, L to R: Patricia Castro, me, Saul Perlmutter, Nelson Nunes. Back, L to R: Peter Nugent, Sabastien Fabbro, Robert Quimby, and Greg Aldering either completely wasted, or just facpalming at it all.