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.
Thanks for this thoughtful post, Randy. Both these guys have given the whole world a better appreciation of how beautiful, amazing, and elegant the universe and life is. I’m glad to have a chance to celebrate Dr. Perlmutter’s achievement, and I mourn with you the loss of Steve Jobs. I’m glad you took the time to give a shout out to them both.
I HAVE NEVER RESPONDED TO A POST ON ANY WEBSITE EVER — So sorry if this isn’t brief, I have a lot to say to make up for lost time! …. I am often astounded at how big of an impact people make on our lives that we have never even heard of and even more so at those we have. I am not a physicist, however I do try to keep up with science and the mainstream discoveries. I knew about the discovery that the universe is expanding and congratulate Saul, although I have never heard of him, and won’t remember his name in the future. Let the Big Bang theory, Dark matter discoveries and debates continue, and thanks to Saul and his colleagues – I’d love to KNOW what we don’t know…… On a different note, I am an Apple employee and I have had the opportunity to see and meet Steve on several occasions, although not worked with him directly. I have inadequate words to express how saddened I am at Steve’s passing. As unexpected as it is, I am always reminded that this is something that any of us can face at any time and I try to live life knowing that tomorrow may not come.
It’s been a while since I cried over the death of someone that I barely knew.
Steve was one of a kind and an inspiration to us all at Apple. Experience has taught me that each of us deals with loss in our own unique way and that we hurt when the person that passes touched us deeply. Steve touched each of us and millions of everyday people all over the world through his innovation and his vision. I am among the fortunate few responsible for making his vision a reality. In our pain, I believe it’s most fitting to focus on how we can contribute to help keep Steve’s legacy alive.
“The journey is the reward.”
– Steve Jobs
Dying is like coming to the end of a long novel–you only regret it if the ride was enjoyable and left you wanting more.
We hurt because Steve left us wanting more.
Tamara Meyers says
The world lost more than a genius when Steve Jobs passed. We lost a man who had the mind of an inventor, the heart of a showman, and the sense to know that the heart is greater than the mind, that family trumps fame, and that beauty can be functional. He is a man who touched the world and left it a far better place simply because he lived his passion, created his dreams, and shared the results with all of us.
Sarah Joy Freese says
Beautiful post. I lost my grandma on the same day that Steve Jobs died, so I can definitely relate to what his family is feeling and not just what the world is feeling. Thanks so much for posting this.
DB Macks says
I think you eloquently expressed what a lot of people think. I also write on a MacBook Pro and have an iPhone. As a creative person I really appreciate what Steve Jobs did for the computer industry and the world. He proved that if you set you mind to it, you could change the world; and he did.
I was wondering if you could give some comments on what you find useful about an I-pad. I use my cheap little acer computer for everything except texting on the bus. Is the touch screen on an ipad the main draw? I’m not sure that my very kinetic thinking style would do well with a touch screen keyboard anyway- i think i need to feel the keys! But i keep wondering if there is some other excuse for me to get one for Christmas? My son just bought himself one. I will ask him too!
I read your e-zine. I met you briefly at a writer’s conference. I start teaching high school English next semester and i would like to share some of your articles with the students.
Keep moving forward!
Randy, I obtain so much valuable information each time I read your blogs. Thank you for reminding us all about the geniuses all around us. The gift of Steve Jobs will forever be enshrined in the hearts of those who use i-pads etc (even if they do not know his name), as will other greats of Saul Perlmutter for his contribution not only in the Science Community, but in the world. You, too are added in this category for you keep us abreast of issues that would normally be left on the side of the road. Randy keep posting, I enjoy your writing…augie
Davalynn Spencer says
Great post, but beyond that, it is a perfect example of writing about what you right about–something you have long encouraged writers to do. You write novels about “geniuses in jeopardy” so the connection to Perlmutter and Jobs is a perfect fit. My middle grade novel is about two boys trapped underground in an earthquake; I need to write articles/blogs/columns about earthquakes.
Five hundred years from now, first-year writing students will probably be studying something called the Snowflake.
Christina (Berry) Tarabochia says
I’ve missed reading your blog! I’m finally back int eh swing of things, blogging profound proverbs about stolen products, and popped over here to catch up. You are one amazing guy, Randy Ingermanson, and I am blessed to know you. The heart and intelligence you show in posts like these make me feel like I’m sitting right next to you, absorbing your genius!
Carlos de la Parra says
Interestingly enough. So happens that this theory is in consonance with the Mayan prophecies for 2012, the changes have been clearly taking place. Be aware that these happen around and within all of us.
We are part of a special era.