Nobel Prize in Physics Hits Close to Home

Experiments GeekMom

The Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded yesterday. I have to tell you that I was shocked and thrilled when I heard the announcement on the radio. You see, when I was working at Space Telescope Science Institute, one of my absolute favorite programs that I worked on was a high-z supernova search lead by Adam Riess. I actually discovered a couple of supernovae during that program, and while it was meticulous work, it was incredibly rewarding. The search that I was part of was follow-up to the work for which he earned the Nobel Prize for yesterday. Congratulations to all of the Nobel Prize winners, especially my former boss, Adam Riess!

Yesterday morning’s press release was short, but changed three lives forever.

4 October 2011
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the Nobel Prize in Physics for 2011
with one half to
Saul Perlmutter
The Supernova Cosmology Project
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and University of California,
Berkeley, CA, USA
and the other half jointly to
Brian P. Schmidt
The High-z Supernova Search Team
Australian National University,
Weston Creek, Australia
Adam G. Riess
The High-z Supernova Search Team
Johns Hopkins University and Space Telescope Science Institute,
Baltimore, MD, USA
“for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae”

In 1998, the field of cosmology was rocked by the findings of two different research teams, one led by Perlmutter and another led by Schmidt and Riess. These teams simultaneously mapped extremely distant Type Ia supernova in an effort to map the Universe. A Type Ia supernova is an explosion of an old compact star that is as heavy as the Sun but as small as the Earth. These supernova can emit as much light as a whole galaxy.

Combined, the two research teams found over 50 distant supernovae whose light was weaker than expected — a sign that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating. The fact that both teams came to the same conclusion at about the same time was confirmation that both teams had overcome the numerous obstacles to observing extremely distant supernovae. It had been widely accepted for nearly 100 years that the Universe has been steadily expanding since the Big Bang. This discovery stated that the expansion is accelerating over time, implying that at some point in the extremely distant future the Universe will end in ice.

It is theorized that this acceleration of expansion is due to dark energy. Of course, defining dark energy is one of the driving forces in physics today. However, it is widely accepted that nearly 75% of the known universe is filled with dark energy. What does that mean? That we have so much more to learn about our Universe.

One of the most famous Type 1a Supernova: Eta Carina
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