What Makes a Nobel Laureate?
Meet the IAS faculty whose discovery confirmed the Big Bang Theory
With a PhD degree from MIT, Prof Smoot has been working at the University of California at Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory since 1970
- The Guardian
Prof George Smoot, winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize in Physics, has joined HKUST as the IAS Helmut and Anna Pao Sohmen Professor-at-Large. He was awarded the Nobel Prize, along with NASA’s John Mather, for groundbreaking discoveries that cemented the Big Bang Theory—a prevailing explanation about how the universe began as a small singularity, then inflated to the universe we know today after a cataclysmic blast some 13.7 billion years ago.
What kind of life does a Nobel Laureate lead? How different is he from the rest of us? We sat down with Prof Smoot to learn what drove him to become a physicist and how the Nobel Prize has changed his life.
A lot of people may wonder if it takes a certain upbringing to grow into a great scientist someday. Can you tell us what led you to the path of science when you were young?
From a very early time, my parents demonstrated the importance of education through their own examples. I remember my mother doing her master’s degree to get a teaching certificate, and my father kept studying engineering to learn what he needed for his work and research. They enrolled me in good schools and took a keen interest in my studies.
We later moved to Alaska because my father loved the outdoors, where he could apply science and engineering to studying water resources. For my sister and I, going to Alaska exposed us to a whole new world—we discovered a way of life more directly connected with nature and its juxtaposition with modern technology and the understanding of mankind.
So your parents’ focus on education and living in Alaska were two big influences on your decision to be a man of science. What is it about physics that ultimately drew your interest then?
I have always been fascinated by a broad range of subjects. Eventually, I focused on physics because it fit my skills and also my temperament to understand things at a deep and fundamental level. I am still drawn to that now and have also taken to applying basic physics discoveries to improving peoples’ lives through technological innovation and products.
Living in Alaska gave the young George a first-hand experience of Mother Nature
Life after winning the Nobel Prize
Being a Nobel Laureate is probably the highest honor a scientist can attain. Prof Smoot shows no sign of slowing down in his work and is an avid advocate for popularizing science. When talking to him, it is easy to be amazed by his youthful energy and passion about the subject. Viewers of the acclaimed American TV series, Big Bang Theory, might even recall his guest appearance on the show, bringing science to the general audience.
How did winning the Nobel Prize affect you, on a professional and personal level?
It is both a great honor and a responsibility to be awarded the Nobel Prize. For me, its timing and occurrence came as a very great surprise and it was actually quite disruptive to my life.
I was busy teaching a large section of freshman Physics at that time. When the announcement was made, the press and University administration all descended to invite me to interviews and events. I had to arrange for the last week of classes and the exam to be covered by another professor so I could go to receive the award and participate in all the action.
Winning the Nobel Prize was like getting a third job of interacting with the press, public, colleagues and universities after doing research and teaching. Almost every day, I got invitations to do things and this was especially true in the first year.
As a Nobel Laureate, you are tasked to participate in and comment on a much wider array of topics than a typical professor. Not only are you asked to give talks and attend events, but also to help raise funds, sit on boards and review public policy issues. In the last couple of years, that has included a lot of activities on climate change, which I consider to be a major issue for humans.
You have said it is important to popularize science—can you tell us a little about how science can be demystified, and why it is important that this happens?
As my thesis advisor said, “If you cannot explain what you are doing in good plain English, then you do not understand it either.” A scientist is not just required to understand his research, he also needs to explain it in a way that other people understand. I take this to heart and believe in always getting the essence of our work communicated.
More and more of the major issues of our time involve a significant amount of science, such as the Zika virus and Dengue fever outbreaks spread by mosquitoes, climate change, and food and water safety. Technological advances like gene editing may promise wonderful possibilities, yet also raise many ethical and cultural questions that people need to consider.
When making decisions related to these issues, it is critical to understand how science works, the cultural context and how much confidence we should have in it. Scientists therefore have a duty to share and let the public know what is happening and what their taxes are supporting.
Prof Smoot showed audience the mapping of the universe at HKUST
The world definitely needs more scientists like you. Other than driving the popularization of science, what else are you focusing on?
For research, I am working on a project to analyze data from the residue of the Big Bang, known as cosmic microwave background radiation, to understand the early universe and its conditions. We are developing new detectors and techniques to conduct large-scale surveys and analyses, which can help us mark the locations and properties of millions of galaxies to learn more about the history of the universe, distribution of matters and formation of galaxies.
As an educator, I partnered with a colleague to offer a massive open online course on gravity. I am proud to say that we have a total of 75,000 students enrolled so far, which has set the record for the biggest class ever in a science course.
It is also a passion of mine to drive the application of basic science in the private sectors. I am working with partners in China and other regions on a number of technical products, including biomedical devices that can help people recuperate from injuries faster and affordable air quality monitors for the general public.