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December 19, 2006

A Surprise Award to George Smoot: the Daniel Chalonge Medal

BERKELEY, CA —George Smoot of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has been awarded the Daniel Chalonge Medal by the International School of Astrophysics "Daniel Chalonge," known as the Chalonge School. The handsome bronze medal was awarded "for George Smoot's 15-year support and outstanding contributions to the Chalonge School." The school offers summer and fall programs in cutting-edge topics in cosmology and astrophysics to graduate and postdoctoral students; it was established in 1991 to honor the pioneering French astrophysicist.

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George Smoot with the Daniel Chalonge Medal (Photo Roy Kaltschmidt, Creative Services Office, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory)

In an award that Smoot describes as "a complete surprise," the medal was presented at the climax of a special Nobel ceremony held Saturday, December 16 at the Paris Observatory (Observatoire de Paris). During the event Smoot delivered his Nobel Lecture, "The discovery of the anisotropy of the fossil radiation of the universe," given the previous week in Stockholm when he received the 2006 Nobel Prize in physics, which he shared with John Mather.

"Originally I was scheduled to teach at the Chalonge School's fall session in Paris, but the announcement of the Nobel Prize forced me to cancel," Smoot says. "To make up for that, I promised to give a series of lectures and public appearances on my way back to California from Stockholm."

Smoot's lecture at the Observatory was his final scheduled appearance in Paris; upon the conclusion of the events officially listed on the six-hour-long agenda, he was presented with the Chalonge Medal by the Chalonge School's director, physicist Norma Sánchez, who is also a research director of France's National Center of Scientific Research (Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique).

"George Smoot has been a key lecturer at the Chalonge School since its creation, having contributed to all the events of the school: courses, workshops, and colloquia," said Sánchez upon presenting the medal. "The Chalonge School is very proud of George and delighted at his outstanding achievements. We address him the warmest congratulations." 

Sánchez, who works at the Paris Observatory, scene of the award ceremony, notes that the elegant 17th century building was built during the reign of Louis XIV. It straddles the Paris Meridian (which France continued to regard as the Prime Meridian for some decades after the Greenwich Meridian was chosen by an international committee in 1884).

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  The Chalonge Medal was designed by the noted French sculptor Madeleine Pierre Quérolle and coined by the Hôtel de la Monnaie (the French Mint). The Observatoire de Paris, background, was designed by Claude Perrault and completed in 1672.

Daniel Chalonge lived from 1895 to 1977 and was a theorist and experimentalist, the French pioneer of stellar spectroscopy and spectrophotometry, who invented a number of unique observing instruments. He was a founder of the Paris Institute of Astrophysics and worked at the Paris Observatory, which now functions as a center of research and graduate-level education, but his passion was for mountain lookouts like those on the Pic du Midi in the Pyrenees and the Jungfraujoch in the Swiss Alps.

Smoot's Chalonge Medal is only the third the school has awarded in its 15-year history. The first medal was awarded in 1991 to astrophysicist and Nobelist Subramanyan Chandrasekhar (1910-1995), who was a great friend of Daniel Chalonge and delivered the school's inaugural lecture. The second medal was awarded in 1992 to the distinguished high-energy physicist Bruno Pontecorvo (1913-1993), a pioneer of neutrino physics and a major supporter and lecturer at the school.

The noted French sculptor who designed the Chalonge Medal, Madeleine Pierre Quérolle, still active in her Parisian workshop at age 93, offered her own original copy of the medal to George Smoot for the third award presentation.

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