By Derrick Schneider
When news broke in October that physicist Saul Perlmutter had won the Nobel Prize, most people focused on his astonishing discovery that the universe’s expansion is accelerating.
In Berkeley, we focused on his parking spot.
Every Nobel Laureate gets prestige, influence, and money, but UC Berkeley’s winners also receive a large, yellow parking permit, known as the NL permit, and a guaranteed parking space on campus. Although Perlmutter receives his Nobel Prize from King Carl XVI Gustaf on Saturday in Stockholm, he already received his NL permit in October.
When Perlmutter gave a press conference about the prize he joked, “Probably the single most important thing about the Nobel Prize for most people is whether they get the coveted parking space on campus.”
It got a laugh from the audience, but it’s a well-worn quip. Students at Berkeley in the early ’90s remember professors saying they wanted a Nobel just so they could get a parking spot.
“Nobel Laureates are the only individuals who have reserved parking spaces on campus,” says Glenda Waugh, assistant to the campus’s Director of Parking and Transportation. “They are also the only individuals who park for free.”
Technically the permit lets you park in any of the eight reserved spaces on campus — Cal’s ninth living Nobel Laureate is Steven Chu, currently serving as Secretary of Energy in President Obama’s administration — but permit holders get to specify a space near their office that will be designated “NL Reserved (although the spelling of the word Nobel is not always right first time).”
“It’s very handy,” says Charles Townes, who won the physics Nobel in 1964. “It saves a lot of time.”
Curiously, permit holders have to renew each year. “Like your Nobel laureate’s going to go away, or something,” said George Smoot [physics, 2006] to NPR in 2009.
The permit dates back to the 1980s. “Czeslaw Milosz [literature, 1980] jokingly suggested a free reserved parking space when Chancellor Ira Heyman asked him if the university could do something special to show its appreciation,” says Waugh. However it was Gerard Debreu, economics winner in 1983, who got the first NL permit. Milosz was granted one as well.
Though the parking permit retains the NL name, it is also available to winners of the Fields Medal, which is granted to mathematicians (for whom there is no Nobel) under the age of 40. Richard Borcherds , Vaughan Jones  and Stephen Smale  are Berkeley’s three Fields medalists.
Berkeley’s NL Permit is the one that gets joked about during Nobel season, but UCSF offers the same privilege to its Nobel winners. And, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Andre Geim [physics, 2010] suggested a parking space when the University of Manchester in England where he teaches asked him what they could do to show their appreciation. Perhaps a new Nobel parking permit tradition is about to be born.
Derrick Schneider writes about food and wine and is a systems programmer.
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