Adam Riess, the Johns Hopkins University
astrophysicist who discovered that the universe is flying apart at an
accelerating rate in response to a still-mysterious force dubbed “dark
energy,” has won yet another top prize for his discovery.
The Peter Gruber Foundation announced today that Riess and his
co-discoverers will share the $500,000 Peter Gruber Cosmology Prize for
2007 with a competing team of scientists.
The unrestricted cash award and gold medal are given annually to
scientists for “theoretical, analytical, or conceptual discoveries
leading to fundamental advances in the field,” according to the
foundation's Web site.
The prize is described by Hopkins as “one of the most prestigious
prizes in cosmology,” and by PhysicsWeb as “the world's only award for
Whichever way you look at it, “It's quite a nice honor,” said Riess, 37. “I'm very happy about it.”
Cosmology is the study of the origins and evolution of the universe as
a whole, compared to astronomy, which concentrates on celestial objects
such as planets, stars and galaxies.
Riess might have been even happier last year, when he and two
co-discoverers shared the $1 million Shaw Prize, an international award
for groundbreaking discoveries in astronomy, mathematics, life sciences
“The Shaw prize was far more lucrative,” said Riess, who was lead author of the first dark energy paper at the age of 28.
He split the Shaw Prize three ways, with Brian P. Schmidt, of the
Australian National University, and Saul Perlmutter, of the University
of California Berkeley.
Schmidt led the High-z Supernova Search team. Riess was a member and
first author of the High-z group's seminal 1998 paper in the journal
Science. Perlmutter led the competing Supernova Cosmology Project,
which shared in the discovery, but published second, in 1999. The two
papers are now among the most cited of the last decade.
This time, the two groups have agreed to split the award in half, with all 51 team members on the two teams receiving shares.
But then, Riess stressed, “It's not about the money. … It gets people focused on the wrong thing.”
At the time of the original discovery, Riess was a young astronomer at
Berkeley, analyzing the light from a collection of exploding stars
called Type 1a supernovae. He was trying to calculate their distance
from Earth and the speed at which they were receding with the expansion
of the universe.
To his puzzlement, it looked as though the more distant supernovae were
moving away more slowly than those that were nearer to Earth in both
space and time.
The implication was that the expansion of the universe has been
accelerating for billions of years. And that flew in the face of
cosmologists' assumptions at the time — that gravity ought to be
gradually slowing the expansion.
Something — it came to be called “dark energy,” but scientists still
don't know precisely what it is — is repelling all the matter in the
universe. It was an idea first articulated by Albert Einstein, who
later rejected it as his “biggest blunder.”
Riess thought at first that there must be a glitch in his own math. But
the more his team members checked and rechecked, the more they became
convinced the acceleration was real.
“When I was writing that paper 10 years ago, I had no idea this would
remain true. Most things in science that are really surprising are
wrong,” he said.
Once he'd published, he thought someone else would find an error in his
work. No one did. “If anything, the evidence has gotten a lot
stronger,” he said.
“I think of this as the end of the beginning for cosmology,” Riess
said. “Now, for the first time, we have plumbed the depths of the
universe and identified all the first constituents.” Now, scientists
believe dark energy constitutes 70 percent of all the matter and energy
in the universe. But they still have no idea what it is or how it works.
“Everybody has been working on follow-up studies. What is this stuff
and what is its nature?” Riess said. “It's a huge industry now. Many
people think of it as one of the two hottest things” in physics and
The second would be the search for planets — and ultimately habitable, or inhabited planets — around distant stars.
Riess has said he once worried aloud to his mother that he'd peaked too
early in his career. But “that was the concern of a 29-year-old,” he
said, laughing. “I've come to realize over time how rare these
discoveries are, and I've learned to appreciate it more. … You're
lucky to get such a mystery in your time to work on.”
In 1999, Riess moved to the Space Telescope Science Institute in
Baltimore to continue his work, using the Hubble Space Telescope. He
and his colleagues began publishing more results, adding evidence to
support their discovery.
In 2006 he joined the faculty at Hopkins, where he is now a professor
in the Henry A. Rowland Department of Physics and Astronomy.
This is not the first Gruber Cosmology Prize for a Hopkins scientist, nor for a Marylander.
Last year's Gruber was presented to John Mather, an astrophysicist at
the Goddard Space Flight Center, in Greenbelt. He led NASA's Cosmic
Background Explorer (COBE) team, whose discoveries earned Mather and
Berkeley's George F. Smoot the 2006 Nobel Prize in physics.
Another member of NASA's COBE team who shared the 2006 Gruber award was Hopkins astrophysicist Charles L. Bennett.
The COBE orbiting observatory measured remnants of the microwave and
infrared radiation released with the Big Bang that cosmologists believe
marked the beginning of all space, matter and time.
Slight variations in that radiation across the sky, the COBE team
discovered, marked differences in density, called “anisotropies,” that
– with gravity — gave rise, over billions of years, to the galaxies,
stars, planets and everything on them.