Nobel Laureates Tell a Chilly Tale


By Merry Morris

What do you do, as a scientist, when you work so hard, only to uncover something that can't possibly be true?

You swallow hard and repeat the experiment — again and again. Then, when the totally unexpected result turns out to be true … you win a Nobel Prize!

That was the story with this year's Nobel Prize for Physics, awarded in Stockholm in early October. The recipients were Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess, who received recognition for their startling 1998 research showing that the universe's expansion was accelerating.

Unbelievable, But True?

Contrary to the longstanding notion that the universe was expanding but at a gradually slowing rate, these scientists found that the reverse was true.

They focused their attention on supernovas, stars that catastrophically collapse. They uncovered alarming data that led to the theory that some force – now called "dark energy," is acting against gravity. Dark energy is speculated to comprise three-quarters of the universe.

According to the faster-and-faster-expansion theory, galaxies will move farther and farther apart, growing colder and darker as they separate. Expanding exponentially, the universe may tear itself apart, resulting in a "big rip."

A Big Chill

That chilly end to the universe joins other "big" theories in astrophysics: the "big bang" theory of the expansion of the universe and the "big crunch" theory that the universe will eventually implode and collapse back into itself.

Saul Perlmutter is currently associated with Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California, Berkeley; Brian Schmidt is at the Australian National University; and Adam Riess is at Johns Hopkins University and Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.

Classroom Discussion

  • The 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded for research conducted in 1998. Why do you think there is a long delay between the research results and the prize?
  • This research will not produce immediate applications like new products or changes in policy. Why then do you think it's important?