Appreciating the Spark of Humanity

July 26, 2012

Because the news seems to be more distressing lately, I thought I’d put here the brief speech of Saul Perlmutter, who, last fall with some colleagues, won the Nobel Prize in Physics for discovering that the universe is expanding, not contracting as previously thought. Perlmutter gave this speech at the Nobel Prize Banquet last October:

Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses,

Honored Guests and Colleagues,

Friends and Families,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great honor and pleasure for Brian Schmidt, Adam Riess, and me – together with our teams – to be here tonight. We represent a community of scientists with whom we tackled one of the most enticing ancient questions: What is the Fate and Extent of the Universe?

According to Einstein, the answer should be determined by how much stuff – mass – is in the universe, gravitationally self-attracting and slowing the universe’s expansion. We all set out to measure this slowing, using the brightness and colors of distant supernovae, exploding stars.

To many of us this is a scientist’s dream: a philosophical problem that can be answered with simple (if difficult) measurement. Even better was the scientist’s fairy-tale ending: a surprise. We live in a universe that apparently isn’t slowing down at all. It’s speeding up, and we have no idea why.

Perhaps the only thing better for a scientist than finding the crucial piece of a puzzle that completes a picture is finding a piece that doesn’t fit at all and tells us there is a whole new part of the puzzle that we haven’t even imagined yet and that the scene in the puzzle is bigger, richer that we ever thought.

A poem by our laureate colleague Tomas Transtromer begins with the following sentence (if you’ll excuse my attempt at Swedish).

En man kanner pa varlden

Med yrket som en handske.

or, in translation:

With his work, as with a glove,

a man feels the universe.

Or course, for our particular work this is perhaps too literally true. But it is also true the other way around:

With our work exploring the universe,

we feel what it is to be human.

In other words: We mortal, limited humans joining together in teams from around the world and in time across civilizations, become capable – in our case, capable of just glimpsing on additional bit of how the universe works. It is exhilarating.

But it is in the doing, in the process of working together to explore the universe that we learn to truly appreciate each other and to enjoy each other’s company and spark, as all humans should be appreciated. And that, too, is exhilarating.

We together thank our hosts for an extraordinary and beautiful evening celebrating these prizes that can remind us of this wonderful aspect of our humanity – and that challenge us to find and explore what’s best in each other as we find and explore more of the universe’s mysteries.

Thank you.

© The Nobel Foundation 2011