“Dark Energy” Pioneers Take Home 2011 Nobel Prize

Three astronomers were awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics Tuesday for showing that a kind of inverse gravity or “dark energy,” is causing our universe to expand at an ever-accelerating pace – a discovery that overturned decades of assumptions in the field of cosmology.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the prize to Adam Riess, an astronomy and physics professor at Johns Hopkins University, American Saul Perlmutter who heads the Supernova Cosmology Project at the University of California, and U.S.-Australian citizen Brian Schmidt, the head of the High-z Supernova Search Team at the Australian National University in Weston Creek, Australia.

The trio, who began their work in the late 80’s early 90’s, studying dozens of exploding stars, or supernovae, expecting to confirm theories that gravity had slowed the universe’s rate of expansion, were admittedly both surprised and scared when their findings proved quite the opposite.

Asked about the discovery, Riess, who at 41 is the youngest of the laureates, recalled first thinking he’d gotten the calculation wrong.

“We anticipated finding that gravity had slowed the rate of expansion over time. But that’s not what we found.” he explained on the Nobel Prize website after being informed of his award. “I remember thinking ah, I made a terrible mistake and then spent weeks looking for it.”

The discovery that the universe’s inflation was speeding up forced astronomers to face an uncomfortable conclusion: Some mysterious anti-gravitational force – later dubbed “dark energy” – must be pushing the universe apart.

“Suddenly, that idea made sense,” said Riess, who says he thinks dark energy may account for up to 70 percent of the universe.

The trio will receive their Nobel Prize at a formal ceremony in Stockholm on December 10, the anniversary of prize founder Alfred Nobel’s death in 1896.

via Seattle Times