George Smoot’s phone rang just before 3:00 a.m. on October 3, and a voice with a Swedish accent told him he’d won the 2006 Nobel Prize in physics. But the cosmologist was skeptical.
After all, a propensity for pranking runs in his family. Oliver R. Smoot ‘62, who set the standard of measurement for the Harvard Bridge (364.4 smoots and an ear), is a distant relative. And Smoot himself can still vividly recall playing a practical joke on his graduate thesis advisor, MIT physics professor David Frisch. After working an overnight shift, Smoot and a friend pretended they had filed down a precious hunk of osmium to get it to fit inside a magnet for an experiment. When Frisch entered the lab and saw metal chips strewn about, he grabbed his heart in terror, Smoot remembers. “That was why I was worried when I got the phone call in the middle of the night,” he says. “I know students can play pranks!”
But the call from Sweden was no prank. Smoot and another MIT alumnus, Andrew Z. Fire, joined a group of 61 other distinguished alumni, professors, and MIT affiliates when each won a 2006 Nobel Prize. Both have changed the way science is done in their fields.
Andrew Z. Fire, PhD ‘83, won the medicine prize for helping uncover the details of a natural gene-silencing mechanism called RNA interference. Though the groundbreaking discovery came only eight years ago, inducing RNA interference is now a common lab technique that helps biologists pinpoint the functions of individual genes. Therapies that use RNA interference to combat human diseases such as macular degeneration are already in clinical trials.
George Smoot ‘66, PhD ‘70, won the physics prize. He co-led the research team behind NASA’s COBE satellite, which made the first quantitative measurements of the initial conditions of the universe. Smoot’s 1992 map of tiny temperature variations in cosmic radiation originating from about 14 billion years ago is the big bang theory’s smoking gun. The minute fluctuations Smoot charted are thought to indicate the local concentrations of energy–the “seeds”–around which matter coalesced into the clusters of galaxies that make up today’s universe.