DOE Physicists at Work - Dr. Peter Nugent
DOE Physicists at Work
Profiles of representative DOE-sponsored physicists
doing research at universities and national laboratories
Compiled by the Office of Scientific and Technical Information
Dr. Peter Nugent
Have you ever looked up at the night sky and wondered where we came from and where we are going? "As it turns out, supernovae - the explosive death knell of some types of stars - go a long way in providing us with the answers to these questions," says Dr. Peter Nugent, staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. "As Carl Sagan said, 'We are made of star stuff.' Everything, from the calcium in our bones, the iron in our skyscrapers even the gold used in our jewelry, was the product of the evolution of a star that eventually exploded as a supernova," continues Dr. Nugent. "How it got to us in the amounts that we see is one of the questions I have always wanted to answer."
When he was 12, his grandfather gave him a telescope. "It was one of those gifts that you don't think much of at the time you get it - nothing that indicated a life-changing moment," says Dr. Nugent. After two months of going out on every clear night, he was hooked. "Astronomy was going to be a hobby for life. As for a profession, well I never thought of it in that way. It was fun, a challenge, and I could learn something new every time I went outside. Later in life I realized that any job I wanted to pursue would have to have two ingredients for me to be happy - it would have to be fun and it would have to be a challenge. My parents knew from the start. I was always one of those kids that kept asking, 'Why?' Physics, as it turns out, is the best subject to study if you want to know - or struggle to find - the answer to the question, 'Why?'"
As he approached college, he found that he had two possibilities for majors. "I loved reading, so English was a natural major, and physics and math came easy to me," says Dr. Nugent. But English proved too difficult. "I loved the reading and writing - it was the re-writing that killed me. Physics, on the other hand, was something that just came naturally to me, and unlike many of the other sciences, it required minimal memorization. You learned a topic, applied common sense and math, and you could get the answer to your problems."
Dr. Nugent arrived at Berkeley Lab for his first postdoctoral study with Saul Perlmutter's Supernova Cosmology Project in 1996. "My education at University of Oklahoma prepared me as a theoretical astrophysicist, with no more experience with a telescope than I had when I was 12," says Dr. Nugent. "I was their in-house theorist, hoping to help them out wherever they needed it."
But after a couple of weeks, his mentor noted that the team was short on observers. "Saul asked me to go to the 4-meter Victor Blanco telescope in Chile to help take images in their search for high-redshift supernovae," says Dr. Nugent. "This was the first time since I had left college that I was going to use a telescope, and it was going to be a switch from a 12-inch scope to one more than 10-times as large."
When the first image came off the telescope, he was saddled with the task of looking at the stars and testing the focus. "I thought the focus wasn't good until I realized that all the faint, elongated, smudges on the screen weren't stars but galaxies! While you read in textbooks that there are as many galaxies in the observable universe as stars in the Milky Way, this was the first time it hit me. Once again I was hooked, but this time it was my job and I could use the biggest and best telescopes in the world."
Since then, Dr. Nugent has made an effort to combine theoretical work with observational studies. "It has paid off well, as I am one of the few in my field who have the opportunity to both observe what I study and later run large computer simulations of these events as well," says Dr. Nugent. "My hobby became my profession - it is both fun and challenging, and I get to work on answering the question, 'Why?' almost every day."
Dr. Nugent is the recipient of several honors and awards, including the DOE's Big Splash computational award in 2002-2003. Nugent has presented his work as a participant on NASA's Space Science Update program, CNN, NOVA, NPR, and the BBC. His work has been featured in Time, Newsweek, Science, and Nature.
Dr. Peter Nugent's articles accessed via OSTI: