George F. Smoot was always going to be something different. He was born in the slightly contradictory sounding town of Yukon, Florida in 1945 and sixty-one years later could be seen parading around the University of California, Berkeley football field carrying a Nobel Prize. But more on that later.
Young Mr. Smoot was a smart guy. He was smart enough to get into MIT and earn dual Bachelor’s degrees in Math and Physics – well, really, anyone could do that. Most people just don’t. Smoot did and followed up with the sexier degree of PhD in particle physics for good measure.
His cousin, Oliver Smoot, accomplished something more impressive at MIT around the same time, creating the “Smoot measurement”. As part of a fraternity pledge, Oliver was used as a measurement of length in a bid to discover the length of the Harvard bridge connecting Boston to Cambridge. Turns out the
bridge is just about 364.4 smoots long, “plus or minus one ear”. Sounds like a long night for young Oliver.
Back to George Smoot. As part of his early work, Dr. Smoot worked on a project called HAPPE (high altitude particle physics experiment), so named because it so delighted everyone that worked on it. It centered around the creation of a “stratospheric weather balloon designed to detect antimatter in the Earth’s upper atmosphere”. Sounds pretty fancy, and we’ll leave it at that because I clearly have no idea what I’m talking about.
After HAPPE, he continued to work on projects with acronymic names like COBE, MAXIMA, and SNAP. You can find out more about these projects on the internet – all I can tell you is that they’re very cool, totally scientific and stuff and help you understand space and whatnot. Hey, I’m not the Berkeley Physics prof here.
More impressively, Dr. Smoot has also been credited by Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart as the inspiration behind his cosmic album “Mysterium Tremendum”. You know you’ve made in in science when your work inspires trippy music like that.
In 2006, Smoot took home the Nobel Prize for Physics, and shortly afterwards appeared as a guest conductor for the University of California marching band as it performed a choreographed version of the Big Band at the halftime of a football game. And hey, why not?
He also won a more impressive prize the following year, earning the maximum $1 million award on the game show “Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader?”, rather decisively answering the question, “Yes. Yes I am”.