Another Nobel Prize for Cosmology!

Just time in between teaching and meetings for a quick post on today’s announcement that the 2011 Nobel Prize for Physics has gone to Saul Perlmutter, Brian P. Schmidt and Adam G. Riess “for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae.”

I’ve taken the liberty of copying the following text from the press release on the Nobel Foundation website

In 1998, cosmology was shaken at its foundations as two research teams presented their findings. Headed by Saul Perlmutter, one of the teams had set to work in 1988. Brian Schmidt headed another team, launched at the end of 1994, where Adam Riess was to play a crucial role.

The research teams raced to map the Universe by locating the most distant supernovae. More sophisticated telescopes on the ground and in space, as well as more powerful computers and new digital imaging sensors (CCD, Nobel Prize in Physics in 2009), opened the possibility in the 1990s to add more pieces to the cosmological puzzle.

The teams used a particular kind of supernova, called type Ia supernova. It is an explosion of an old compact star that is as heavy as the Sun but as small as the Earth. A single such supernova can emit as much light as a whole galaxy. All in all, the two research teams found over 50 distant supernovae whose light was weaker than expected – this was a sign that the expansion of the Universe was accelerating. The potential pitfalls had been numerous, and the scientists found reassurance in the fact that both groups had reached the same astonishing conclusion.

For almost a century, the Universe has been known to be expanding as a consequence of the Big Bang about 14 billion years ago. However, the discovery that this expansion is accelerating is astounding. If the expansion will continue to speed up the Universe will end in ice.

The acceleration is thought to be driven by dark energy, but what that dark energy is remains an enigma – perhaps the greatest in physics today. What is known is that dark energy constitutes about three quarters of the Universe. Therefore the findings of the 2011 Nobel Laureates in Physics have helped to unveil a Universe that to a large extent is unknown to science. And everything is possible again.

I’m definitely among the skeptics when it comes to the standard interpretation of the supernova measurements, and more recent complementary data, in terms of dark energy. However this doesn’t diminish in any way my delight that these three scientists have been rewarded for their sterling observational efforts. The two groups involved in the Supernova Cosmology Project on the one hand, and the High Z Supernova Search, on the other, are both supreme examples of excellence in observational astronomy, taking on and overcoming what were previously thought to be insurmountable observational challenges. This award has been in the air for a few years now, and I’m delighted for all three scientists that their time has come at last. To my mind their discovery is all the more exciting because nobody really knows precisely what it is that they have discovered!

I know that Brian Schmidt is an occasional reader and commenter on this blog. I suspect he might be a little busy right now with the rest of the world’s media right to read this, let alone comment on here, but that won’t stop me congratulating him and the other winners on their achievement. I’m sure they’ll enjoy their visit to Stockholm!

Meanwhile the rest of us can bask in their reflected glory. There’s also been a huge amount of press interest in this announcement which has kept my phone ringing this morning. It’s only been five years since a Nobel Prize in physics went to cosmology, which says something for how exciting a field this is to work in!

UPDATE: There’s an interesting collection of quotes and reactions on the Guardian website, updated live.

UPDATE on the UPDATE: Yours truly gets a quote on the Nature News article about this!

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49 Responses to “Another Nobel Prize for Cosmology!”

  1. Can we expect a £50m boost for UK cosmology in a year from now :)

  2. I’m looking forward to another guest post by Bob Kirshner. :-)

    I’m happy that one of my papers was cited in the corresponding works for which the prize was given. (That paper has been cited 46 times; the Perlmutter et al. paper almost 6000. Can one get credit for “second-order citations”? :-) )

    I have been thinking for a couple of years now that this would be the next Nobel Prize in astrophysics, or even the next Nobel Prize in physics.

    • My memory of Bob Kirchner’s excellent book “The Extravangant Universe” is that Bob was the team leader of the “other” team. But it has been 5-6 years since I read it, so maybe I am getting my facts wrong.

    • No, I’ve refreshed my memory (via wikipedia!), Riess was Kirchner’s PhD student where he worked on developing techniques to use Type Ia SN as reiable distance indicatiors (by, amongst other things, finding a corrleation between colour and apparent magnitude allowing a correction to be made to put them more closely on the same absolute magnitude scale), and then Riess led the Harvard team in their high-z SN search. But, I still find the 50/25/25 split intersting :)

  3. I was at the January 1998 AAS meeting where this result was announced by Saul Perlmutter, and the room was stunned by the result. As you say Peter, it has been rumoured for a number of years that this discovery would garner a Nobel prize. And the time lapse of 13 years seems about right between discoery and award. Maybe it is even more exciting when the result still hasn’t been explained.

    I find the 50/25/25 split of the money interesting. I wonder how Riess and Schmidt feel about it not being an equal three-way split?

    If only I were a superluminal neutrino, I could come back from 2024 and tell you that the FTL neutrinos announced last week won the 2024 Prize

  4. This is a reply to a comment which posted by mistake in the previous thread (i.e. the original comment; my reply being there is a consequence of the original comment being there).

    =====================================================

    Hhmmm….Your comment hasn’t traveled in time, but in cyberspace, namely from the next post to this one!

    With regard to the split: I think 2:1:1 for these three is OK. Perlmutter was the first to start and faced many obstacles before the ball started rolling. It was hugely important that another group do the same thing, but kudos to Saul for starting off first. Folks were really sceptical whether he could pull it off.

    On the other hand, both teams are, well, teams. While Perlmutter was the clear leader of his team, the structure in the other team wasn’t as clearly defined. In both cases, the question is whom to single out.

  5. Quoting Martin Rees from the Guardian:

    I think, however, that this is one of the increasingly frequent instances when the Nobel Committee is damagingly constrained by its tradition that a prize can’t be shared between more than three individuals. The key papers recognised by this award were authored by two groups, each containing a dozen or so scientists. It would have been fairer, and would send a less distorted message about how this kind of science is actually done, if the award had been made collectively to all members of the two groups.

    I have to agree with MR here. It’s not just tradition, but in the will of Nobel, as is the stipulation that it not be posthumous. On the other hand, his will originally stipulated “within the previous year”, and this criterion is wisely ignored today (and has been for a very long time).

    Of course, it can be fair to award the prize to the leader of a collaboration, if he did the lion’s share of the work. One might be able to make a case that it is OK to single out Saul, but I’m not so sure in the case of the other group.

    • On the other hand, awards have gone to organisations such as the Red Cross, which in a sense is an award to more than 3 people.

      • telescoper Says:

        Only the Peace Prize, the rules for which do not restrict the number of recipients to three…

    • As almost every Nobel prizewinning piece of work in the sciences involves large collaborations, it would quicly cheapen the prize to have dozens or scores of recipients each year in each subject. I think, in the light of this, to limit it to the team leader is a fair thing to do.

      • I agree. On the other hand, what if there are 4 worthy people? IIRC, there was a case recently where someone was left out. (Fred Hoyle was left out as well, though—rightly or wrongly—probably because of his, shall we say, ability to make enemies.)

        One could say that if there are 100 people involved, even if the discovery is worth a prize, this was be extreme dilution. 3 might be the best compromise.

      • telescoper Says:

        I have a better suggestion. Just give all the money to me and I’ll decide who gets it. Or rather who gets what’s left after my commission…

      • One has to draw the line somewhere as to how many recipients to honour for a particular discovery, and if Nobel himself stipulated 3 then it seems fair enough to me to stick to his stipulation, as any other limit would be equally as arbitrary. I can’t think there are many (any?) scientific discoveries these days that are limited to 12 or 20 people, let alone 3, or at least not in the science subjects for which there are Nobel prizes (maths may be an exception). One only hopes that Riess and Perlmutter and Schmidt will be sharing their spoils with their respective team mates :)

      • There is no Nobel Prize for maths.

        Experimental particle physics is dominated by large teams, but in other branches of science, there are still papers written by just a few or even just one author, some of them worthy of a Nobel Prize.

      • I know there isn’t, the Fields prize is considered the equivalent. But, I was using maths as an example where “Nobel worthy” work (whatever that means) can, sometimes, be achieved by individuals. I guess the same is trtue in theoretical physics, but these days in experimental physics/astrophysics nearly all work is done in teams, some VERY large (the author list for the FTL neutrino paper last week was a good example :) )

    • Avery Meiksin Says:

      I fully agree. It’s worth having a look at Riess et al. (1998; ApJ 116:1009), where they give a thumbnail sketch of the history, going back to Colgate (1979) who suggested the idea. It took a lot of effort from others to get to the discovery. Notice also
      that Filippenko is the clear 2nd author of the High-z Supernova Search Team discovery paper.

      An interesting take from Kirshner is at:

      http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2011/10/nobel-origins/

      In a Boston Globe interview (5 Oct), Riess generously says:
      “I think it would be great if the Nobel prize could go to entire teams of people, because it’s really a lot of teamwork that allows these projects to succeed,’’ Riess said during a press conference. “If you want to know how science is really done and how recognition is doled out – I think it should be the whole team. I wish that could be true.’’

      • telescoper Says:

        My understanding is that the Foundation could change the rules if they wished, but they seem content not to.

        The Peace Prize, awarded not in Stockholm but in Oslo, is exempt from the “maximum of 3″ rule….

      • Avery, thanks for that Riess reference. Actually, it is AJ not ApJ, but a very useful paper to read. I had not come across it before.

  6. [...] again, and for a little more info, don’t hesitate to read Sean’s, Steinn’s or Peter’s interesting takes, also, on the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics! Read the comments on this [...]

  7. Jay Carr Jr. Says:

    *************************************************
    THE NOBEL PEACE PRIZE IN ASTROPHYSICS PREMISE IS WRONG;

    THE MILKY WAY GALAXY IS AT THE CENTER OF THIS UNIVERSE AND THERE ARE
    MORE THAN ONE UNIVERSE; THE UNIVERSE IS NOT EXPANDING; THE OTHER GALAxIES
    ARE ORBITING THE MILKY WAY GALAXY; THE DATA THEY SAW WHERE IT LOOKED LIKE
    THE EXPLODING STARTS FROM ANOTHER GALAXY JUST LOOKS LIKE THE
    STARS AND THE GALAXY IT IS FROM IS UNDER ACCELERATION AND INCREASING
    IN SPEED BUT IT IS NOT; THEY MUST NOT BE TAKING INTO ACCOUNT THE TANGENGTIAL
    VELOCITY OF THE EARTH ORBITING THE SUN AT APROXIMATELY
    600 MILLION MILES PER YEAR; SO THE EARTH WAS RELATIVE TO THE OHTER
    GALZXIES REFERENCE FRAME INCREASING IN VELOCITY BECAUASE AS SEEN
    FROM THE OTHER GALAXY THE TANGENTIAL VELOCITY LOOKS LIKE ITS INCREASING
    BUT IT IS NOT, IT IS CONSTANT AND MOVING AWAY ALONG ITS (THE EARTH’S)
    PARABOLIC ORBIT FROM THE DISTANCE GALAXY; FROM THE EARTH’S REFERENCE FRAME IT LOOKS LIKE THE GALAXY WHERE THE EXPLODED STAR IS FROM IS ACCLREATING AWAY, BUT ITS NOT, ITS JUST THAT FROM THE OTHER GALAXIES REFERENCE FRAME THE TANGENTIAL VELOCITY OF THE EARTH SEEMS TO BE INCREASING BUT ITS NOT, ITS CONSTANT; I SAID THAT TWICE DIDN’T I;
    ~ JAY CARR JR.
    [jay.carr1488@yahoo.com]
    ***********************************************

    • telescoper Says:

      Not even wrong.

      • But funny, especially the first sentence.

      • Rhodri Evans Says:

        If you get other contributions like this please post them Peter. Not only did I get a good laugh to lift my mood after hearing the sad news of Steve Jobs’ death at 56. But also, picking apart the plethora of misunderstandings in this comment would be a useful 1st year tutorial exercise.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Indeed Phillip, the idea of a “Nobel Peace Prize in Astrophysics” is not without merit given some of the disagreements in this field. It reminds me of someone who was once described to me as having “a black belt in quantum physics”.

    • Rhodri Evans Says:

      Does this guy write for Sarah Palin?

      • Seriously, anyone writing for Sarah Palin wouldn’t be this close to the truth.

      • Rhodri Evans Says:

        True.

      • Jay Carr Jr. Says:

        **************************************************************************
        THE UNIVERSE IS NOT EXPANDING
        FROM THE REFERENCE FRAME OF TEH EARTH THERE ARE 4 CONSTANT TANGENTIAL VELOCITIES THAT IF NOT TAKEN INTO ACCOUNT WOULD MAKE IT LOOK LIKE A DISTANT GALAXY WAS EITHER ACCERATING TOWARDS OR AWAY FROM THE GALAXY WE LIVE IN, THE MILKYWAY, BUT THAT IS NOT THE CASE; THE UNIVERSE IS NOT EXPANDING; THE 4 TANGENTIAL VELOCITIES OF TEH 4 HEAVENLY BODIES TO BE CONSIDERED TO SEE THAT THE UNIVERSE IS NOT EXPANDING AT AN ACCELERATED RATE OR EXPANDING CONSTANTLY EITHER BUT INSTEAD IT IS REMAINING CONSTANT WITH ALL OF THE GALAXIES IN THIS UNIVERSE (THERE ARE OTHER UNIVERSES) ORBITING THE MILKYWAY GALAXY AT THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE;
        1. THE CONSTANT TANGENTIAL VELOCITY OF EARTH’S ELIPTICAL ORBIT ABOUT THE SUN; (* I SAID PARABOLIC ORBIT IN A PREVIOUS WRITING BUT MEANT TO SAY ELIPTICAL);
        2. THE SUN’S CONSTANT TANGENTIAL VELOCITY OF IT’S ELIPTIACAL ORBIT ABOUT THE SUPER GIANT DEMATERIALIZED STAR AT THE CENTER OF THE MILKY WAY GALAXY & THE CENTER OF THIS UNIVERSE; THEIR ARE NO BLACK HOLES IN SPACE, THERE ARE SUPER GIANT DEMATERIALIZED STARS AT THE CENTER OF THE GALXIES, & GIANT DEMATERIALIZED STARS, & DEMATERIALIZED STARS, NOT BLACK HOLES; IN THEIR DEMATERIALED STATES, THE DEMATERIALIZED STARS HAVE NO MASS OR GRAVITY & THEY DO NOT BEND PHYSICAL LIGHT, THEY BLOCK IT FROM PHYSICAL SIGHT;
        3. THERE IS ALSO THE CONSTANT TANGENTIAL VELOCITY OF THE STAR IN TEH DISTANT GALAXYTO CONSIDER IN ITS ELIPTICAL ORBIT ABOUT THE SUPER GIANT DEMATERIALIZED STAR AT THE CENTER OF ITS GALAXY;
        4. THE CONSTANT TANGENTIAL VELOCITY OF TEH DISTANT GALAXIES ORBIT ABOUT THE MILKYWAY GALAXY;
        IF YOU CONSIDER THE 4 CONSTANT TANGENTIAL VELOCITES OF THE 4 HEAVENLY BODIES, YOU’LL SEE THAT THE UNIVERSE IS SECURE & SAFE & IS NOT EXPANDING AT AN ACCELERATED RATE OR AT ALL;
        BY THE WAY, IF THE GALAXIES WERE (BUT OF COURSE THET’RE NOT) MOVING AWAY FROM EACH OTHER UNDER CONSTANT ACCLERATION, THEN THEY WOULD HAVE ALL DISAPPEARED FROM SIGHT A REALLY LONG TIME AGO;
        I CAN ALSO EXPLAIN WHY THERE ARE ONLY A FEW STARS & A COUPLE OF GALAXIES STILL VISABLE TO THE NAKED EYE; 1/3 OF THEM WERE SMITTEN AS WAS PHROPHISIED IN REVELATIONS; I CAN EXPLAIN THE PHYSICS OF TEH SMITTENING AND WILL DO SO ANOTHER TIME;
        ~ JAY CARR JR.
        **********************************************************************

      • telescoper Says:

        Gibberish.

      • Why do “nutters” always not know how to use lower case in their posts?

  8. Anton Garrett Says:

    This year’s Nobel prize for chemistry also went to physics, ie quasicrystals…

    • Anton,

      Isn’t chemistry just a sub-discipline of physics for those not intelligent enough to do the hard bits? Aren’t chemists just people who are intelligent enough to realise they are not intelligent enough to do physics? :)

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      YOU might say that; I couldn’t possibly comment.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Organic synthesis certainly calls for its own way of thinking, which is quite different from anything in physics. But if we really want to annoy a large number of people, we can always compile a list of subjects by which to complete the sentence, “Those not good enough to go further in physics go into…”

      • …. go into something else….”

      • telescoper Says:

        I used to really like doing organic synthesis problems. They require a particular kind of reasoning that is unlike anything else, much as crosswords do. All those curly arrows and things. Great fun.

      • Why and when were you doing organic synthesis Peter? Were you doing a “Richard Feynman” (he used to do brief summer sabbaticals in other departments at Caltech)?

      • telescoper Says:

        I learned about the joys of organic synthesis doing A-level chemistry – my teacher had a PhD in organic chemistry. I then went to Cambridge to do Natural Sciences so did chemistry in the first year of my degree too. I liked organic chemistry the best because it was really just like doing some strange sort of puzzle. Physical chemistry was really just fairly routine physics and inorganic chemistry was just awful.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Physical chemisty was physics, therefore OK – agreed. But I take the opposite view of organic and inorganic from you Peter. Organic was black magic, you could use those curly arrows to synthesis anything (a supervisor once used them to get the desired answer, then found that the answer was wrong). Inorganic was closest in spirit to good old school chemistry and the periodic table.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Dirac is supposed to have said that his equation explains “all of chemistry and most of physics”.

  9. Saw that report on that report on Yahoo! Website fascinating…..

  10. telescoper Says:

    I’m sorry to say I’ve had enough of Mr Jay Carr Jr, who is posting multiple copies of his capitalized ravings. The first one was amusing, but now I’m bored. He’s banned.

    • I can’t claim to have read each word of his postings, but they are getting a little repetitive (and the spelling mistakes haven’t been corrected, let alone the physics mistakes!).

      And he caps lock key seems to be stuck.

  11. [...] again, and for a little more info, don’t hesitate to read Sean’s, Steinn’s or Peter’s interesting takes, also, on the 2011 Nobel Prize in [...]

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