2011 Nobel Prize in Physics goes to dark energy

The 2011 Nobel Prize for Physics has just been announced: one half goes to Saul Perlmutter from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, US, the other half shared by Adam Riess at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore and Brian Schmidt from the Australian National University, Weston Creek, “for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe through observations of distant supernovae”.

As the press release from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences says: “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.”

As mentioned in Nobelprize.org’s traditional post-announcement interview with the Physics Committee member, Perlmutter and Schmidt led rival groups that revealed the expansion of the universe is accelerating. The concept of “dark energy” was used to explain what was driving the expansion. The scientific community, who had long used Einstein’s constant for a static universe, almost immediately accepted a new model of the universe.

Ian Sample at the Guardian’s liveblog has posted some wonderful videos of the new Physics Laureates discussing their work on the expansion of the universe, including the one below in which Brian Schmidt talks about the beginning and end of the universe.

However, the Physics World blog takes a more controversial tack, highlighting the difficulties in assigning scientific credit to a discovery made by two rival groups, especially under the restraints of the Nobel Prize, which can only be awarded to maximum of three individuals.

The post points to Robert Crease’s Physics World article, published in 2007, which described the scientific credit issues that were at stake, in particular the question of who reported and published their work first. Apparently the article caused a stir. Members from both teams were worried about the piece, and it ended up going through more than 20 drafts. Crease’s article is worth reading to get a sense of, as the blogpost says: “how deeply scientific progress is indebted to ambition, desire, pride, rivalry, suspicion and other perfectly ordinary human passions.”

Sample has just posted words to a similar effect from Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal & Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge. As Lord Rees tells Sample:

“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. 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.”

Oh, and by the way… if you ever wanted to follow a Nobel Laureate on Twitter you now can. You’ll find Brian Schmidt at @cosmicpinot. His Twitter bio currently reads: “An overly busy Cosmologist, Grape Grower, Astronomer, Wine maker, Dad, and Husband.” I’m sure he’ll be adding Nobel Laureate to that soon.


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