Nobel physicist Smoot smarter than a 5th-grader
Sunday, January 3, 2010
For much of his life, astrophysicist George Smoot III has been what he calls a "scientific outlaw."
It was his passion for searching and investigating outside the mainstream that won the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory scientist the Nobel Prize for physics in 2006 for evidence supporting the Big Bang Theory. Even among his nerdy peers, the effusive Smoot was on the fringes, playing football in high school, trekking in Nepal, attending the Academy Awards, listening to music like Jay Z and Avril Lavigne on his iPod and volunteering as a sound tech for Jerry Garcia back in the day.
But after winning the Nobel Prize, he felt constrained, a newly minted member of "the establishment" thrust into the position of role model.
Brushing aside objections from his Lawrence Berkeley lab colleagues, who argued it would not portray the world's premiere research lab in the right light, he decided to appear in September on the Fox TV game show, "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?"
He appeared earlier in the year on the CBS sitcom, "The Big Bang Theory," playing himself as the keynote speaker at a conference attended by the main characters, ultra nerdy scientists. He said he agreed to go on the show because he likes that the scientists are portrayed as heroes.
But "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?" was different.
"It was kind of like rebelling," Smoot said. "It was risky because there was a big chance you wouldn't answer everything correctly. You are supposed to be this example to new generations, and to have to say you are not smarter than a fifth-grader would be embarrassing."
A humanizing effect
Smoot, who also teaches at UC Berkeley, had something else in mind. He thought his game show appearance would be humanizing and a good lesson for his students.
"When I came to Berkeley, I met all these Nobel laureates and I got to know that they were regular people," he said. "They were very smart and very motivated and worked very hard, but they were still humans, whereas before they were kind of mythical creatures to me.
"To see that they were human ... was just a great example for me. So going on 'Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?' and failing might encourage people who thought they weren't up to a task to try."
Smoot didn't fail, although at one point he had to turn for help from a 10-year-old fifth-grader on the set after being stumped by a question about whether a porcupine is a rodent. It is.
He also flubbed a question about when the Soviet Union sent the first man into space that the host threw him for fun after he correctly answered that the country had sent the first human into space.
Smoot hasn't decided yet what to do with his $1 million prize money.
The $700,000 he received for winning the Nobel went to UC Berkeley as seed money to establish the Berkeley Center for Cosmological Physics. The 64-year-old physics professor envisioned the center as a place where young postdoctoral researchers could explore and dream up lofty projects just as he did when he studied cosmic microwave background radiation.
Smoot's nurturing of students comes from his love of science and the universe.
He said the first time he realized he had an interest in the skies was when he was 5 or 6 years old. During a car trip home to Alabama from Georgia, where he and his family had been visiting relatives, he noticed that "the moon was following us the whole way" and asked his parents why. He said his parents explained that because the moon is so big and so far away, everyone on Earth can see it and it can look like it is following them.
Lifetime of exploration
He turned that typical childhood question into a lifetime of scientific exploration.
"I wanted to know how everything worked. It is a form of power to know how everything fits together," he said.
Smoot's quest for scientific knowledge led him to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he earned a doctorate in physics in 1970. He has been an astrophysicist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory since 1974 and a UC Berkeley physics professor since 1994.
Befitting his nonconformist tendencies, he decided against pursuing research in the traditional areas of physics and astrophysics, instead embracing cosmology, the study of the universe as a whole: its birth, growth, shape, size and eventual fate.
In the 1970s, cosmology was not yet an established field, said UC physics Professor Saul Perlmutter, a friend of Smoot's.
"In that sense, he probably always fell outside what a traditional physicist and a traditional astrophysicist is doing," Perlmutter said. "Now cosmic microwave background radiation has become a huge industry with lots of players, but he was there in the early days working."
Since winning the Nobel Prize, Smoot has traveled often to conferences and other gatherings around the world, exercising his passion for improving science education. Part of his zeal comes from his experiences on campus, where he has seen a dramatic drop in the number of U.S.-born graduate students and post-doctoral researchers.
"You have to wonder if Asia (India, China, Japan, Korea ...) produces 90% of the PhD's in science and engineering, where are the new discoveries, innovations and products going to be made and what will happen to those societies that are strong in science and engineering compared to those falling far behind," he said in an e-mail. "It is clear that those societies will be strong in the welfare of their citizens and the others will see a relatively sinking standard."
Smoot said that he wants students today to have the same opportunities for a good education that he had, but too many U.S. science and math teachers do not have the experience or training needed to prepare the next generation of scientists.
He and his UC Berkeley colleagues are working to raise money to set up an academy to help improve science, technology, engineering and math education.
The Global Teacher Academy would train 40 teachers a year using science and math content and cosmology as a "story line" with practical, hands-on instruction. Those teachers would then go out and train the teachers at their own schools, expanding the reach of the program.
Smoot, a bachelor who lives in Berkeley, has very little free time. When he does manage to carve out time for himself, he doesn't wander far from science.
He often reads several books at a time, a mix of novels and books generally related to work, including popular science, philosophy and theology, for example, he said.
And he enjoys cooking - and eating. But he turns it into a science, seeking out different varieties of his favorite foods.
While living in Paris for a semester seven years ago, Smoot asked friends and acquaintances for recommendations for the best chocolate shops and patisseries. Every few days, he'd get two types of chocolates and conduct a taste-off so that he could pin down his favorite place.
During these experiments, he discovered that it was best to pair the chocolates with a cup of tea. He started with ginger peach tea and then branched out. Now, he is so taken with teas that he has a box of specialty teas outside his office and talks enthusiastically about the exotic teas he brings from his travels, like a tea from China packed in a delicate tangerine.
He said his taste in teas progressed much like his dad's taste in cheese matured from Velveeta to Roquefort.
Quality teas, desserts
"It started out that I just liked teas," he said. "I first liked ginger peach. Then I discovered there is lemon zinger and then I got into more exotic teas. I learned to have a tea ritual, quality teas with quality dessert."
Smoot's Nobel Prize, won with John Mather of NASA, came after they "made a picture of the embryo universe," as he told the host of "Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader."
It was the Nobel medal that he kissed for luck on the show before correctly naming Maine as the answer to the final question, which was to name the location of Acadia National Park.
In the end, Smoot waved his hands in victory and declared to the audience, "My name is George Smoot III, and I AM smarter than a fifth-grader."