This “universe” really does revolve around him


“I am often asked to say some nice things about Mike Turner,” said his friend and collaborator Edward “Rocky” Kolb, the astronomy and astrophysics chair. “And I’m sick of it!” Such was the tone of “Michael Turner’s Universe,” the day-long celebration of the life and work of the Chicago astrophysicist, founder of particle cosmology, and noted wag. Turner was marking his 60th birthday—or, as handouts with the day’s agenda listed, 2 × 109 s. (Eh, close enough.)

Turner and Kolb wrote a 1994 book that is still the standard text on the early history of the universe, and it was the former who coined the term “dark energy” to describe the mysterious stuff that makes up the majority of our universe. An all-star team of presenters gave talks in his honor. Each was part scientific symposium, part tribute, and part roast. For example, Wendy Freedman of the Carnegie Observatories discussed Turner’s role in recognizing the dark energy's existence but joked, “He’s done almost nothing to illuminate the nature of dark energy, and now that he’s 60, he’s unlikely to in the future.”

Not every tribute was so cutting. Dennis Overbye, science reporter for the New York Times, came to thank the “eminently quotable” Turner for being available to explain in layman’s terms the astronomical discovery du jour. “On behalf of the New York Times and science journalists everywhere, thanks for making our lives a little easier and a lot more fun.” And Kolb, in a serious moment, compared Turner’s work with that of another Turner, Frederick Jackson Turner, the 19th-century historian who wrote about the American frontier. Kolb praised the younger Turner as an explorer of the scientific frontier of particle cosmology.

Turner occasionally delivered a witty riposte from his seat but took most of the ribbing in stride. During Chicago colleague Josh Frieman's introductory remarks, Turner jokingly asked if he would get a chance to rebut. Later that day, Freedman turned the tables by announcing that Turner would get a chance—at 6 a.m. Saturday morning. No word as to what kind of crowd he drew.

Benjamin Recchie, AB'03



October 1, 2009