David Spergel discusses the elegance of the universe, how an astrophysicist visualizes data, and how, at the end of the day, luck is one of the most important things a scientist can have.

Wheat Field

David Spergel




One can spend a lifetime working toward a singularly defined goal—a victory, a role, a result.

But then there are those achievements that simply blow in with the wind.

“Someone just calls you out of the blue,” astrophysicist David Spergel told Princeton Alumni Weekly.

It’s not exactly how you would imagine such an incredible recognition to go—but that’s what happens when you receive a MacArthur Fellowship, colloquially dubbed the “genius grant.”

Spergel’s first order of business after receiving the $500,000 award in 2001?

“I bought a foosball table,” he told Princeton Alumni. “That didn’t take up too much of the money, though.”

Rather, he said, what a MacArthur really buys you is time. And he put his to good use—something he seems to have always had a knack for doing.

Appropriately, Spergel attended John Glenn High School in Huntington, New York (the same school, in fact, that Design Matters host Debbie Millman attended). While his father was a physicist who was involved in initiatives such as the Apollo project, the elder Spergel didn’t put his son on a fixed path toward his own passions; rather, Spergel elected to participate in things such as the Westinghouse Science Talent Search in 1978, in which high school seniors “dedicate countless hours to original research projects and write up their results in reports that resemble graduate school theses.” His work on the rings of Uranus didn’t take home a win, but it’s perhaps some consolation that he’s prominently featured on the organization's list of notable alumni today.

After heading off to Princeton, Spergel majored in physics. His close second choice was the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs; one wonders who he might have become had he followed that path instead of the one leading to the cosmos. Spergel dreamed of teaching at Princeton one day—which is exactly what he did after graduating from the school and subsequently from Harvard with a Ph.D. in astronomy.

Astrophysics is not an easy thing to explain. While one should never invoke something as lowbrow and pedestrian as a meme when discussing the most brilliant among us, consider the following four-panel astrophysicist meme in an attempt to describe what one of the most brilliant among us today does. Frame one: “What people think I do”—an image of two mystic hands poised above a glowing orb. Frame two: “What my mom thinks I do”—an image of a space shuttle taking off, with an image of Gandalf thrown in for good measure. Frame three: “What I think I do”—an image of planets in space. Frame four: “What I really do”—an image of dull black-and-white computer code.

In Spergel’s world, data is where the findings are truly found.

And as he said when he received his MacArthur, money buys time—and that is what one needs to perform research.

In 2001, NASA launched the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), which captured actual imagery of radiation remaining from the Big Bang. Spergel and his team took to studying and interpreting the WMAP data—and they did so with such intensity that Spergel bought his colleagues T-shirts noting Sleep is for the weak.

The team subsequently published their findings—and they were groundbreaking. Spergel and his comrades were able to nail the age of the universe down to about 14 billion years, and eventually determine its true composition: 71.4% dark energy, 24% dark matter and only 4.6% ordinary matter. The sum toll of their efforts provided what has since been dubbed “a baby picture of the universe.”

And it would seem those sleepless nights were indeed worth it: As the late astrophysicist John N. Bahcall was widely quoted as saying at the time, it’s a “rite of passage for cosmology, from speculation to precision science,” adding, “I think every astronomer will remember where they were when they heard these results. I certainly will.”

Another cosmologist noted, “You’re going to see a thousand papers based on these results”—prescient words. Spergel’s paper would go on to hold the title of the most-cited physics work of the 21st century.

Elsewhere, his formal recognitions are numerous: He received the 2018 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics (dubbed “The Oscars of Science”); the Dannie Heineman Prize for Astrophysics; the President’s Distinguished Teaching Award; The Shaw Prize in Astronomy.

Moreover, he was featured on TIME’s “25 Most Influential People in Space” list in 2012 alongside the likes of Elon Musk and Neil deGrasse Tyson. He has also appeared on a number of television shows, from Stephen Hawking: Master of the Universe to Through the Wormhole and How the Universe Works.

This prompts one to ponder the notion of celebrity in science. In design, celebrity is generally earned by making waves as a practitioner, and then, usually, by remaining a practitioner and giving talks that expound upon said practitioning. In science, one observable path is an evolution from practitioner to full-time ponderist, career distiller of information for the masses—a crowdsourced font of wisdom, in a sense.

But what if someone could serve as that mind for the masses, while simultaneously pushing the field forward with stunning work?

That, it would seem, is David Spergel.

This episode of Design Matters follows closely in the wake of Stephen Hawking’s death, a loss unsurprisingly felt deeply by the scientific community, and perhaps a tad surprisingly by the general public. Hawking was widely memorialized in the media, social media and culture at large—which, for many accustomed to today’s mainline of political rage, worn like blinders on a horse, was a sign of hope.

Design writer Steven Heller has written about how the way we envision the future in pop culture has evolved—or perhaps better stated, devolved—over the years. We’ve gone from sci-fi projections built around hope, tech and possibility in the 1950s to scenes of dystopia and survival today.

With legendary minds like Hawking gone, it’s vitally energizing and electrifying that we have Spergel at work, sleep be damned—if only, in some small but meaningful way, to bring back the visions of the past, to see possibility, to instill the wonder in us that will cause us to look away from our screens and the 24/7 news stream, and look up.

—Zachary Petit, Design Matters Media Editor-in-Chief

And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both.  — Debbie Millman