And the Nobel Prize Goes to…

Mario Livio, livio@stsci.edu

The Nobel Prize in Physics for 2011 was awarded to Saul Perlmutter of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Brian P. Schmidt of the Australian National University, and Adam G. Riess of the Space Telescope Science Institute and the Johns Hopkins University. The citation reads: “For the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae.”

The Nobel Prize marks the culmination (so far) of the career of our own Adam Riess. It could hardly have happened to a nicer guy.

The original evidence for an accelerating universe was based primarily on the faintness (by about 0.25 magnitudes) of supernovae at redshifts of about 0.5, compared to their expected brightness in a universe decelerating under its own gravity. Unless Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity needs to be modified, the acceleration appears to be propelled by the repulsive force of an elusive Dark Energy. Arguably, the nature of this Dark Energy is the most profound puzzle that physics is facing today.

Rather than describing the physics for the Newsletter, I chose to ask Adam for his impressions from Stockholm. After all, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience (although a few, just like James Bond, experience it twice). “We were served champagne at every lunch and dinner event, and once even at mid-morning,” Adam told me. Tough life! He then added: “Once on the ground in Stockholm, we were met immediately off the airplane—not at the end of the gangplank, but immediately outside the airplane door—by multiple Nobel officials. We were escorted to a private elevator, whisked into a private car and settled in the VIP Lounge with hot coffee and chocolates, while our luggage was retrieved and passports stamped. Who knew this service even existed?”

I was thinking, I suppose that if you are not a movie star or a world-known politician, then the Nobel Prize can also open a few doors. As if to confirm my thoughts, Adam continued: “Oh, and did I mention people stopped me on the street for autographs? They waited outside the hotel for the laureates to appear.  What a country!”

In spite of all the perks, the Nobel week is apparently not easy. The laureates were whisked from one event to another, glad to catch a 1–2 hour break in between, with just enough time to eat and change before the next appointment. This is where a personal attaché (Anna) and a personal driver (Leanna) proved indispensable.

Apparently the eve of the ceremony and banquet was truly unbelievable: “We processed through the blocked-off Stockholm streets in one long BMW caravan (nine total), escorted by police cars and sirens. Especially driving up the wrong side of the closed streets. Magnificent!” Adam described.

Just in case you wonder how many events there were, here is a partial list: Nobel Museum, Swedish press conference, U.S. Embassy, BBC show “Nobel Minds,” Nobel lecture, Nobel ceremony and banquet, private tour of the Vasa Museum, dinner at the Royal Palace with the Royal Family, colloquium at Alabanova with teammates from the High-z Team and the Supernova Cosmology Project, private dinner and tour at Junibacken (the author of Pippi Longstocking, Astrid Lindgren, is Swedish).

Even with all of this hoopla, Adam admits that the Nobel ceremony was the most exciting: “There were hundreds if not thousands in the audience, all dressed to the nines—men in white tie and tails, women in ball gowns—and my seven-year-old daughter in her princess dress. The Queen and King just inches from us.”

Then, to top it all, was the signing of “the book.” Adam took the opportunity to flip back pages to see a few of the names that have signed in the past. They included: Feynman, Bethe, Weinberg, Chandrasekhar, Giacconi… “I heard of these guys,” he told me.

Now we have heard of Riess, too.