I write novels featuring “geniuses in jeopardy,” so it seems fitting to pay tribute to two geniuses who’ve hit the headlines this week.
Saul Perlmutter won the Nobel Prize in physics this week for his work in astrophysics. Back in the 1990s, Saul’s team showed that the universe is not merely expanding — it’s accelerating.
According to Einstein’s theory of relativity, this can be explained by the existence of so-called “dark energy” which pervades the universe. It was a revolutionary discovery, and another team made essentially the same discovery at essentially the same time. Two physicists from that team shared the prize with Saul.
I single out Saul because, back in 1981, I was a second-year graduate student in physics at UC Berkeley. That year, I was the teaching assistant for the standard class in electromagnetic theory that all first-year grad students were required to take. My job was to grade the homework. I had 56 students in the class, as I recall, and I found that five of them consistently got perfect scores on their homework. One of those five was a guy named Saul Perlmutter.
If my memory is correct, Saul was the one who always wrote his assignments in blue ink with beautiful handwriting. I might be mistaken; it’s been 30 years. It might have been one of the other four. But that’s what my memory tells me.
As it turned out, Saul and I both wound up finishing our Ph.D. theses in the fall of 1986, which meant that we graduated in the same UC Berkeley physics department commencement exercises in the spring of 1987. I dug out the commencement program this morning and found that he’s listed just across from me on the opposite page.
Saul went on to do some truly elegant work automating the discovery of supernovae, which led a decade later to his remarkable discovery. I know Saul doesn’t read my blog; nevertheless, I have this to say. “Kudos, Saul! You’ve done a fantastic job and the Nobel is well deserved.”
500 years from now, the astronomical advances of the 20th century may well be summarized for third graders in one sentence like this: “Edwin Hubble showed that the universe is expanding and Saul Perlmutter showed that it’s actually accelerating.”
Tragically, Steve Jobs made the headlines yesterday. I was devastated when I read that he’d died. I’m typing this blog on a MacBook Pro while I’m listening to music on my iMac. There’s an iPhone in my pocket. In my backpack, my iPad is charging. My life is built on tools and toys that Steve created. I can hardly believe he’s gone.
Steve Jobs brought elegance and art to computer engineering. There was simply nobody like him. He not only made the world a better place, he made it a qualitatively DIFFERENT place. Let me explain that.
Years ago, I had a boss who tried to summarize in a few sentences how computer science has evolved over the decades. “The key insight that made computers possible in the 1940s was the idea that everything is a number. The key insight that made Unix the best operating system in the 1970s was the idea that everything is a string of text. The key insight that made the Mac insanely great in the 1980s was the idea that everything is a picture.”
Numbers are for geeks. Text is for geeks. Pictures are for everybody. Qualitatively different.
If Steve could see this blog, I’d want him to read this: “Kudos Steve! You put beauty and elegance back into engineering. You were insanely great.”
500 years from now, first-year engineering students may very well be studying how Steve fused art and engineering to create elegant devices. First-year business students may very well be studying how Steve brought Apple back from the brink when he returned to the company in late 1996 and executed the business comeback of the century.