Saul Perlmutter

Among the world leaders and luminaries at this year’s Davos Shabbat, the annual Friday night dinner held at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, was Saul Perlmutter, the American Jewish astrophysicist. It has been a banner year for Perlmutter, who, along with colleagues Adam Riess and Brian P. Schmidt, visited Stockholm in December 2011 to receive the Nobel Prize in physics.

Perlmutter, who teaches physics at the Berkeley campus of the University of California, heads the laboratory’s Supernova Cosmology Project, which used exploding stars known as Type 1a supernovae to prove that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, probably due to a mysterious force known as dark energy.

The existence of such a force was predicted nearly a century ago by Albert Einstein, who referred to it as the “cosmological constant” but later rejected the idea, believing he’d made an error in his calculations.

Perlmutter, 53, is a Harvard alum and holds a doctorate from UC Berkeley. He came by academic success naturally: His father taught chemical and bio-molecular engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, and his mother was a professor at Temple University’s School of Social Administration.

Growing up in the Mount Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia, he attended a folkshul and learned Yiddish language and culture at the knee of his grandfather, Yiddish scholar Samuel Davidson. Perlmutter is a onetime panelist for the Jewish Public Forum of CLAL — The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. The forum is an interdisciplinary think tank focusing on the future of Jewish learning. He praised the forum’s efforts to foster “conversations across the usual boundaries.”

Perlmutter’s secret to unseating Einstein and unlocking the secrets of the ever-expanding universe? As he told The Philadelphia Inquirer, “I think you have to enjoy having your mind boggled.”

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