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June 16, 2024

Physics professor awarded Nobel prize

By Mali Wiederkehr | October 5, 2011

A wave of excitement and pride reverberated throughout the Hopkins community on Tuesday when Hopkins Physics and Astronomy professor Adam Riess received the Nobel Prize in Physics for discovering that a mysterious force known as dark energy causes the universe to accelerate and expand.

"This is completely overwhelming. It's just been an incredible day so far and an incredible 15 years ride in this era of cosmology," Riess said in a press conference in Mason Hall on Tuesday.

Reiss shared the prize with Brian Schmidt, of the Australian National University, and Saul Perlmutter from the University of California, Berkeley. The three scientists spent years recording seemingly erroneous distances of supernovae, until repeated experiments verified the results. "Anybody who has ever done science knows that there are 52 ways to do something wrong and not many ways to do it right and that you frequently make mistakes," Riess said.  

"I kept getting this funny sign error and I just assumed it was a mistake. I spent weeks looking for that mistake and I couldn't find it. At some point we decided that maybe this was how the universe really was."

Despite the team's discovery of the universe's acceleration, the identity and qualities of its enigmatic culprit known as dark energy remain largely undefined. Unveiling dark energy will require scientists to peer deeply into the universe with a wider field of view. It is "a juicy problem and you'll win a noble prize if you figure it out. In fact I'll give you mine," Riess joked.

He also stressed the importance of collaboration among scientists in order to make headway in scientific progress. "It's often said that we stand on the shoulders of giants and nothing could be more true in the field of astronomy and astrophysics because we have to use these incredibly powerful, incredibly complicated instruments and facilities that take decades to build," Riess said.

Riess's interest in science developed in high school when he was blown away by a course on special relativity. Science has largely defining his life ever since. Even while getting ready for his honeymoon, Riess was compelled to email his colleagues about their research. "I get right behind the computer and [my wife] looks up and goes, ‘Adam, seriously! On our honeymoon?' And I said, ‘this one's really important.'"

Riess views science as a rewarding and exciting adventure, encouraging interested students to get involved in research in any way that they can. "This is a great place to do science," he said of Hopkins. "Keep working. We need your help."

The joint discovery is fundamental to quantum mechanics and Einstein's theory of general relativity, thus revolutionizing our understanding of modern physics. In regards to winning the Nobel Prize for his lifework, Riess told his 7-year-old daughter, "It's like getting a great, big gold sticker on your homework."

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