Nobel Prize for the Accelerating Universe

By Sean Carroll | October 4, 2011 8:56 am

Sometimes it’s not that hard to predict the future — everyone paying attention (including me) knew that one of the most Nobel-worthy discoveries out there was the 1998 announcement that our universe is accelerating. Now the achievement has been officially honored, with this year’s Physics Prize going to Saul Perlmutter, Adam Riess, and Brian Schmidt. (Great quotes and coverage at the Guardian.) Congrats to three extremely deserving scientists!

Like regular people with major historical events, most physicists can remember where they were when they first heard that the universe is accelerating. That’s how big this discovery was. It was just the right combination of “startling” — very few people really thought the universe was accelerating, and if they did they certainly weren’t proclaiming that belief very loudly — and “believable” — we all knew it was possible, and as soon as the data came in people realized that it solved a bunch of problems at once. There was a healthy amount of skepticism, but in a very short period of time it became difficult to get a Ph.D. as a cosmologist without working on this problem in one way or another — either verifying the result observationally, or trying to come up with a theoretical explanation.

The leading explanation by far, of course, is the existence of a smooth and persistent source of energy known as dark energy, of which Einstein’s cosmological constant is the simplest and most compelling example. If that’s the right answer, we’re talking about 73% or so of the universe. Something to tell your grandkids that you helped discover, eh? A small sampling of what this discovery has wrought, just taken from this here blog:

Not a bad result, I would say.

You don’t think I’m going to leave this without mentioning that Brian Schmidt was my office mate in grad school, do you? Taught the young man all he knows (about inflation and field theory). Adam Riess was a fellow classmate of ours, both of them studying under Bob Kirshner. I even got to collaborate on a follow-up paper with these upstanding gentlemen. Saul Perlmutter was already at Lawrence Berkeley Labs thinking about supernovae and the expansion of the universe, so I can’t claim to have influenced him, but we did chat on the phone several times about what different observational outcomes would imply for theory. This is the first Nobel Prize where I was friends with all the winners before they won.

In this day and age, of course, much good science is done by teams, not by individuals. This is certainly an example; Brian has already said that he’ll be bringing his team to Stockholm. Congratulations again to everyone involved in this discovery, truly one of the historic events in science.

  • Phil Plait

    Wait, you were at Harvard during that time rooming with Brian? I was working with Kirshner on a related project, and visited twice. Weird; we must’ve met then at some point. Did you go to the Friday wine tasting I attended? Hmmmm. :)

  • Sean

    There were a lot of Friday wine tastings, I went to some of them. We were at least in the same building!

  • Stacy McGaugh

    It is great to see that the physics Nobel prize is recognizing the contribution of astronomers. It has always struck me as odd that to date, only observations of the microwave sky “counted” as physics, especially considering the missed opportunity to honor Hubble himself. Everyone agrees that the detection of dark matter particles – should that ever occur – would warrant a Nobel prize. So why not a Nobel prize for Vera Rubin and Albert Bosma, whose observations did so much to motivate the current search for dark matter?

  • Vicky

    A very deserved prize! Congratulations to the three of them :)
    But I do agree with Stacy, I think Vera would be a very worthy winner, and I’m surprised she hasn’t already been awarded the prize. She is a bit of a hero of mine though, so I’m biased.

  • Sean

    I’m already on the Nobel Prize for Vera Rubin bandwagon.

  • Tod R. Lauer

    This is the first Nobel prize for work done in optical astronomy. Both teams used NOAO telescopes to find the SN and obtain their light curves. It’s wonderful that you can find something novel about the Universe just by going out and taking a look. Of course, it’s a little harder than that, and both teams worked like crazy. A great day!

  • Mike Bacon

    “On any clear night, the chances are that your roof will be struck by evidence falling from the sky which, if you only knew what to look for and how, would win you the Nobel prize.” — David Deutsch — The Beginning of Infinity.

    Well, this just proves it. Congratulations to Perlmutter, Riess and Schmidt!

  • ToSeek

    Riess gave a talk at Goddard a year or so ago, and I made a point in attending, thinking, “I’ll catch him before he’s won his Nobel Prize.”

  • johnthompson

    Congratulations to all the new winners. I was at the AAS meeting where the two teams gave invited talks about their findings, with Perlmutter giving one and Bob Kirshner the other. I thought at the time that talking in “competition” with Kirshner was a thankless task.
    Now, if there was a solution to the Nobel three-body problem, optical astronomy might win another Nobel.

  • Eccentric & Anomalous

    Congrats to them, it is truly well deserved!

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  • Jim Harrison

    Innocent question: How come Alan Guth hasn’t won a Nobel prize? Did he hurt somebody’s feelings?

  • Curious Wavefunction

    As we celebrate expansions, accelerations and Nobel Prizes, let’s not forget Henrietta Swan Leavitt who started it all. Her studies on the brightness of Cepheid variable stars revolutionized astronomy and directly led to the discovery of the expanding universe and all that followed. Partly because she was a woman she received almost no recognition for this during her lifetime. Leavitt needs to supplant the tired old caricature of Marie Curie as a new role model for women in science.

  • a postdoc

    Alan Guth has no Nobel because it’s not really clear that inflation has been “discovered” yet. The Nobel committee seems to really prefer giving prizes for concrete discoveries; note that they’re particular that this year’s is for “acceleration”, and NOT for “dark energy”.

  • Kati

    Vera Rubin shafted again?

  • Richard

    Good call by Sean “master of the universe” Carroll five years ago:

    If I were in charge of the universe I might give 50% of the prize to Perlmutter and 25% each to Schmidt and Riess, and feel really bad about not including Kirshner. But the discovery is clearly worthy of a Nobel, and I likely won’t complain with whatever way they choose to divvy up the award.

  • Bob Kirshner

    It’s not every day you *don’t* win the Nobel Prize.
    No, that’s not right. It *is* every day.
    But you know what I mean.

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  • Phillip Helbig

    Sean—don’t go over to the Dark Side! If I had won the prize, my first words into the international microphones would have been “Let’s all stop using the airhead term “dark energy”.”

    As you yourself have pointed out, essentially everything has energy and lots of things are dark. “Dark energy” is just a stupid “marketing” term which is all style and no substance, all presentation and no content, something from a spin doctor or an add agency. Scientists should promote understanding the universe, not trying to sound cool.

    As to whether we need a deeper understanding of “what” the cosmological constant “is”: do we need a deeper understanding of what gravitation “is”, i.e. “why” it exists, or is it enough that GR describes it well?

    Nobel originally specified “invention or discovery”, so there is no problem that all the details are not understood. In fact, discoveries which are difficult to understand are more interesting.

    Note also that Hubble came to believe that the expansion of the universe was not real, though of course he discovered the relation between apparent magnitude and redshift.

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  • Shantanu

    Congratulations to the nobel laureates.
    Also I would nominate Irwin Shapiro for Shapiro delay. Nowadays
    everyone takes “Shapiro delay” for granted, but it took 50 years after einstein’s discovery of GR for
    this to be proposed. Also now it has not only become a powerful test to discriminate against alternate gravity theories, but it is also routinely used as an astrophysical tool to measure masses of neutron
    stars, including the nobel-prize winning Hulse-Taylor binary pulsar , where Shapiro delay was one of the observables used which helped over-determine the system

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  • GRBjunky

    Calm down guys! There is no such thing as a Nobel Prize well deserved unless you assume Nobel means the best, which has never been the case. The only thing can be said about Nobel Prize is that those results are important and can last longer than a decade without been proven wrong. In most cases one just need to be lucky to discover things that are interesting enough to alert the Nobel committee. Most of the Nobel Prize winners are neither any smarter nor harder working than their peers (I happened to think Bob Kirshner is in a much better scientist than the three winners, but that does not matter to Nobel committee). Nobel prize became famous because of great people such as Einstein, but Einstein did not get his fame because of the Nobel Prize he received for photoelectric effect. Many won Nobel because their research sort of “vindicates” GR, but Einstein never got a prize for GR. In short, Nobel prize is over valued, and serious scientists should ignore it.

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  • Jim Rohlf

    We used to joke when I was a student at Caltech that it was very easy to know a nobel prize winner, but it was much more interesting to know somebody BEFORE they won it. Congrats to your friends.

  • James Ph. Kotsybar

    — James Ph. Kotsybar

    The Universe is expanding,
    Faster than the limit of light,
    Beyond common understanding.

    Cosmology is demanding.
    Its study is by no means slight.
    The Universe is expanding.

    Physics’ heroes, quite outstanding,
    Have applied their full mental might
    Beyond common understanding.

    There’s no point in reprimanding,
    As we gaze out into the night,
    The Universe is expanding.

    The truth of fact is commanding.
    Whatever is has to be right,
    Beyond common understanding.

    Einstein’s physics notwithstanding,
    Much quicker than what we call bright,
    The Universe is expanding
    Beyond common understanding.

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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