Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

Nobel-winning astronomer thought discovery was an error

American astronomer Adam Riess initially thought his Nobel-prize winning discovery that the expansion of the universe is speeding up was a mistake.

Riess shared the physics prize on Tuesday with Saul Perlmutter and Brian Schmidt. They were honoured for their observations of exploding stars that transformed our view of the world, and of how it may end.

“I assumed I had made some mistakes and spent a long time analysing that and could not find a mistake,” Riess said during a teleconference with reporters, adding that he then asked Schmidt and finally his research team to also review his work.

“None of us could really find what was wrong and at some point we decided maybe this was the way the universe really was, it wasn’t slowing down it was speeding up,” he said.

The astronomers work had shown how the universe that emerged from the Big Bang may fly apart so far, cooling as it goes, and that it “will end in ice”, the Nobel Committee said.

It also gave birth to the theory of dark energy, a kind of inverse gravity, that causes the expansion to accelerate. Up to three-quarters of the universe seems to be composed of dark energy — but just what it is is a matter of speculation.

Riess was cautious about the prediction that the world would eventually freeze up into “ice” without energy.

“It’s also possible that dark energy is a more complicated phenomenon and that we’ll still get some change or some transition, in which case I would say all bets are still off for the universe,” he said.

Riess, who was still in his 20s when the groundbreaking research was published and is now a professor of physics and astronomy at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said he was already awake when he got the early morning call telling him he had won the Nobel prize.

“My 10-month-old son was making some yips and yaps because he hasn’t been sleeping well and I was listening to that hoping he would fall asleep, thinking it must be 2am or 3am in the morning and then the phone rang,” he said.

“I immediately looked at the clock and I was surprised it was 5:30am,” he said. “I immediately thought ‘isn’t that when you are supposed to get the famous call?'” — Reuters

Subscribe for R500/year

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

Related stories

WELCOME TO YOUR M&G

If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

Already a subscriber? Sign in here

Advertising

Subscribers only

Fears of violence persist a year after the murder of...

The court battle to stop coal mining in rural KwaZulu-Natal has heightened the sense of danger among environmental activists

Data shows EFF has lower negative sentiment online among voters...

The EFF has a stronger online presence than the ANC and Democratic Alliance

More top stories

Mkhize throws the book at the Special Investigating Unit

It’s a long shot at political redemption for the former health minister and, more pressingly, a bid to avert criminal charges

Pockets of instability in Kenya are underpinned by unequal development

Stability in Kenya hinges on a just, equitable distribution of resources, and a commitment to progress human development for the marginalised

Eastern Cape premier Mabuyane lives large amid province’s poverty

Oscar Mabuyane and MEC Babalo Madikizela allegedly used a portion of state funds for struggle icon Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s commemoration for their own benefit
Advertising

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…
×