Last night the winners of the 2015 Breakthrough Prizes were announced, including the $3 million Fundamental Physics Prize -- likely the most lucrative such honor in science. And while prior winners have skewed heavily towards string theory and theoretical cosmology, this year's winners were the Nobel-winning teams responsible for measuring the accelerating expansion of the universe back in 1998, headed by Saul Perlmutter on the one hand and Brian Schmidt and Adam Reiss on the other. That achievement also snagged them the $1 million Shaw Prize, which makes dark energy research pretty darn lucrative., although the teams will split the $3 million prize money among 50 or so physicists (with Perlmutter, Schmidt, and Reiss getting larger shares because, well, they led the teams).
It's worth noting the other winners, too, especially the seven young physicists honored with three $100,000 New Horizons prizes for research with an especially promising future. Philip C. Schuster and Natalia Toro, both of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, in Waterloo, Ontario, won for developing new ways to hunt for dark matter signatures in particle collider data.
The other two New Horizon prizes were related to the so-called Holographic Principle: "the idea, suggested by string theory and black holes, that the world is a hologram, like the pictures on credit cards in which the illusion of three dimensions has been encoded on a two-dimensional surface," per the New York Times. Sean Hartnoll of Stanford, won for "applying holographic methods to obtain remarkable new insights into strongly interacting quantum matter." And there was a four-way win for Horacio Casini and Marina Huerta, both of the Balseiro Institute at the National University of Cuyo in Argentina; Shinsei Ryu of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and Tadashi Takayanagi of Kyoto University "for fundamental ideas about entropy in quantum field theory and quantum gravity."
So hearty congrats to all the winners, but this post is All About Schmidt. I last wrote about the work on the accelerating universe back when they first won the Nobel Prize in 2011, opening with a story about that time a couple of years before the announcement when Brian came to visit us in Los Angeles. (He and the Time Lord have been friends since their grad school/post-doc days, although Brian is now at Australian National University in Canberra):
"We took him to a nearby tapas eatery for nibbles and pisco sours. I remember they were shooting a scene from a Will Smith movie that night, so nearby storefronts were riddled with fake bullet holes, and the odd fake gunfire and explosion interrupted our conversation. Unfazed, Brian regaled us with tales of his life in Australia, where he juggles research with running his very own winery — hence his Twitter handle, @CosmicPinot."
That's right, Brian Schmidt is the world's only vintner with a Nobel Prize in physics, specializing in pinot noir because the climate and soil (or terroir) is especially well suited for that varietal. He and is wife own a four-star winery called Maipenrai (Thai for “It’s all right”) in Sutton, New South Wales, near Canberra.
Surprisingly, he's not the only local physicist who makes wine: there's also David Carpenter of Lark Hill winery, who has a degree in physics. “We’re a very academic group here in Canberra, plenty of winemakers here have PhDs,” he told wine blogger Nicola Chandler back in 2011. (There's even a Canadian vintner in Ontario named Brian Schmidt, which probably causes a bit of confusion.)
For all his science and business savvy, Brian has a bad habit of making losing bets with the Time Lord. One of those bets, made in the 1990s, was whether physicists would be able to measure the total matter density of the entire universe within 20 years. Sean said yes, Brian said no, and Sean won -- partly because of Brian's own experimental research.
At our Los Angeles dinner, Brian made another bet with Sean that the Large Hadron Collider wouldn't find the Higgs boson. He swore if he lost, he would fly both of us out to Australia -- using his massive number of frequent flyer miles -- and Sean in turn would give a public lecture in Canberra.
Well, occasional dissident papers aside, the Higgs discovery has pretty much been confirmed. And Brian was true to his word. In March 2o13, we flew out to Canberra, with a brief stop in Sydney on the way home. There were many highlights, but among them: a personal tour of Brian's vineyard and wine-making operation, complete with plentiful kangaroo droppings (and the odd kangaroo sighting).
Brian is largely self-taught when it comes to wine-making, having learned the intricacies of making a good pinot noir through the time-honored process of trial and error -- with a little help from local vintners like Carpenter. "With astrophysics, I try to do everything perfectly. I don’t like making mistakes. Winemaking is all about making mistakes," he told blogger Kash Farooq in 2011. "Where I try to be pretty much perfect all the time in my astronomy, in my winemaking I know I’ll never be perfect."
His scientific training came in handy, though: he developed a comprehensive database of the weather at Maipenrai over the years, which he uses it to achieve optimum flavor when it comes time to harvest grapes from the vines. Not surprisingly, he's concerned about the impact of ongoing climate change, and has started experimenting with other grape varietals to prepare for a time when the local clime might not be quite so well suited to pinot noir anymore.
In the meantime, “I’m trying to make pinot noir with a bit of substance, not just primary fruit, some interest in terms of savouriness, complex gaminess, not just strawberries and intense fruit,” he told Farooq. The label has been well received, and Brian told me that what little was left of the 2011 vintage (about four crates) sold out in 60 seconds when his Nobel win was announced.
It's a small operation -- maybe 250 bottles per year -- so he and his family do most of the work, save hiring pruners to keep the vines trimmed. Once the grapes are harvested,they're destemmed (not crushed), although like most wine-makers, Brian adds a few full clumps with stems intact for a bit of added flavor. A good pinot is all about the complexity.
Then he lets the grapes ferment in enormous metal vats for three or four weeks, thanks to the addition of natural yeasts. Next, the wines are pressed and stored in French Oak barrels for anywhere from 14 to 22 months. Brian checks the status occasionally with the help of a special siphon to sample the wine-in-progress without disturbing the fermentation.
Once it's sufficiently aged to Brian's satisfaction, there is much taste testing of various blends to determine the highest quality wines for the Maipenrai label. (Apparently 2007 was such a bad year for Australian pinot noirs, thanks to severe drought, that the winery didn't bottle anything that year for the label.) Finally, the wine is bottled with glass corks (to avoid things like cork taint, oxidizaton and so forth), and classy labels are designed.
It's not really that surprising that a physicist might become enamored of wine-making. There's plenty of fluid dynamics, for starters, notably a phenomenon called "tears of wine" (or wine legs") that arises from a combination of capillary action and the Marangoni effect.
Per Jen-Luc's fave Tumblr, the first "helps the wine flow up the wall of the glass. At the same time, the alcohol in this wine film evaporates faster than the water, raising the surface tension of the wine film relative to the main pool of wine below. Because of this gradient in surface tension, the wine will tend to flow up the walls of the glass away from the area of lower surface tension. This also helps draw the wine upward. When the weight of the wine film is too great for capillary action and surface tension to hold it in place, droplets of wine—the legs themselves—flow back downward."
Perhaps the most obvious connection between physics and wine comes from none other than the late physicist (and another Nobel laureate) Richard Feynman, who once famously riffed on the notion that the entire universe could be found in a simple glass of wine -- a sentiment Brian Schmidt no doubt shares.
A poet once said, "The whole universe is in a glass of wine." We will probably never know in what sense he said that, for poets do not write to be understood. But it is true that if we look in glass of wine closely enough we see the entire universe. There are the things of physics: the twisting liquid which evaporates depending on the wind and weather, the reflections in the glass, and our imagination adds the atoms. The glass is a distillation of the earth's rocks, and in its composition we see the secrets of the universe's age, and the evolution of the stars. What strange array of chemicals are in the wine? How did they come to be? There are the ferments, the enzymes, the substrates, and the products.
There in wine is found the great generalization: all life is fermentation. Nobody can discover the chemistry of wine without discovering the cause of much disease. How vivid is the claret, pressing its existence into the consciousness that watches it! If in our small minds, for some convenience, divide this glass of wine, this universe, into parts - physics, biology, geology, astronomy, psychology, and so on - remember that nature does not know it! So let us put it all back together, not forgetting ultimately what it is for. Let us give one more final pleasure: drink it and forget it all.