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Institute Astronomers Share Prize for Discovery of Accelerating Universe

Release date: Dec 16, 2014 3:00 PM (EST)
Institute Astronomers Share Prize for Discovery of Accelerating Universe

It's the stuff of a science fiction movie: a mysterious form of energy that is pulling the universe apart at an ever-faster rate. Astronomers around the world are befuddled and are marshaling the world's most powerful telescopes in their search for clues to understanding what this "dark force" could be. Who knows how the story will end?

This script was not written by Hollywood writers but by two teams of astronomers, including scientists at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. And now Hollywood has taken notice. The two groups received the $3 million Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. Adam Riess of the Space Telescope Science Institute and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, Saul Perlmutter of the University of California, Berkeley, and Brian P. Schmidt of the Australian National University accepted the award on behalf of their teams at an Academy Awards-style ceremony in California. Riess (at far right in the photo) and Schmidt led the High-Z Supernova Team, Perlmutter the Supernova Cosmology Project. Other Institute scientists sharing the prize are Susana Deustua, Nino Panagia, and Andy Fruchter of the Supernova Cosmology team (seen left to right in the photo) and Ron Gilliland of the High-Z team.

The Full Story
Release date: Dec 16, 2014
Institute Astronomers Share Prize for Discovery of Accelerating Universe

It's the stuff of a science fiction movie: a mysterious form of energy that is pulling the universe apart at an ever-faster rate. Astronomers around the world are befuddled and marshaling the world's most powerful telescopes in their search for clues to understanding what this "dark force" could be. Who knows how the story will end?

This script was not written by Hollywood writers but by two teams of astronomers, including scientists at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland. And now Hollywood has taken notice. The two groups received the $3 million Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. Adam Riess of the Space Telescope Science Institute and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, Saul Perlmutter of the University of California, Berkeley, and Brian P. Schmidt of the Australian National University accepted the award Nov. 9 on behalf of their teams at an Academy Awards-style ceremony in California. Seth MacFarlane, best known as the creator of the TV animation "Family Guy" and also the new edition of the "Cosmos" series, was the host. Singer Christina Aguilera, actress Cameron Diaz, and actor Benedict Cumberbatch were among the Hollywood luminaries in attendance.

Riess and Schmidt led the High-Z Supernova Team, Perlmutter the Supernova Cosmology Project. Other Institute scientists sharing the prize are Susana Deustua, Andy Fruchter, and Nino Panagia of the Supernova Cosmology team and Ron Gilliland of the High-Z team. Each team shares $1.5 million.

The teams were among 12 Breakthrough Prize winners honored for their achievements in science and in math. The awards were established two years ago by Yuri Milner, Russian entrepreneur and philanthropist; Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google; Anne Wojcicki, founder of the genetics company 23andMe; and Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook.

The two teams initially began their Hubble observations of far-flung supernovae to measure the deceleration of the universe due to the pull of gravity. To their amazement, they found the opposite; the universe was expanding at an ever-faster rate. Astrophysicists have hypothesized that an unknown phenomenon, called dark energy, is causing the acceleration.

The discovery, first announced in 1998, is one of the biggest surprises in science and has earned Riess, Perlmutter, and Schmidt many accolades, including the Nobel Prize in Physics. But the Breakthrough Prize is only the second award that honors both entire teams for the discovery.

"For my perspective, one of the very nice things about this award is that, unlike the Nobel Prize, the Breakthrough Prize, by being so new, doesn't have any rules on the number of people who can be recognized," Riess said. "So the Breakthrough Prize committee chose to recognize all the people on the teams and to give them money directly. This is one of the most egalitarian awards I've seen. Science is done with large teams of people, and having the opportunity to start changing the paradigm of how we recognize the contributions in science is so important."

Team members do everything from planning the observations, to performing the observations, to analyzing the data, to writing the science papers. This work can take years to complete before the results are announced in published science papers.

The Perlmutter and Riess teams, for example, spent time using ground-based telescopes and the Hubble Space Telescope for their observations. They were studying a special type of exploding star, called a Type Ia supernova, to measure the universe's expansion. These special supernovae burn at the same brightness. By comparing their predicted light output with how bright they appear, astronomers can estimate how far they are from Earth. Scientists use them to map the history of the universe's expansion.

Institute astronomer and Supernova Cosmology team member Susana Deustua was working at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California at the time of the study. One of her team contributions was hunting for distant supernovae using the Victor Blanco 4-meter Telescope at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile. Several times a year for about five years, Deustua would go on two separate one-week observing runs in a month.

She also helped the team – consisting of about 35 members, including about five women – with searching for supernovae in the data. "We had software that would flag potential supernovae," Deustua explained. "And then about 10 people would look for it. We would go through hundreds of images, and after your 100th image, your eyes would cross. It was tedious, but it was also a lot of fun. When we found one, we would get excited. So it was very much a group effort."

When it was time to chase after the supernovae with follow-up observations using the Hubble telescope, both teams turned to members who were Institute scientists knowledgeable about planning, obtaining, and analyzing Hubble data. Ron Gilliland of Riess's team and Andy Fruchter of Perlmutter's group had to quickly plan and obtain observing time before the exploding star's light faded from view. Institute astronomer Nino Panagia of Perlmutter's group aided in the supernova analysis. "Especially in those days, fewer people knew about Hubble operations," said Riess, who was at the University of California, Berkeley, at the time of the discovery. "And these observations were time-critical. If they were going to plan the observations, for example, they had to answer such questions as, how well in the sky do we need to know where the supernova will be even before we find the supernova?"

Fruchter thinks the number of Institute scientists who contributed to both research teams is a testament to its uniqueness. "This place is where fundamental science is being done by astronomers who also have a dual job of working to make sure that Hubble is functioning at its best, while at the same time, doing independent research," he said. "Institute scientists are particularly invested in maintaining Hubble because they use it to do their own science."

Both Fruchter and Deustua were completely blindsided by winning the Breakthrough Prize. Riess, Schmidt, and Perlmutter could not tell them about the award until after they were given the prize. "I saw an email that said, 'Fruchter Breakthrough Prize Notification,' and I ignored it because I thought it was spam," Fruchter said. It wasn't until several hours later that he read a story about the awards ceremony in the New York Times. The next day, Perlmutter sent an email to his team telling them the award was "not a hoax."

For more information about the Breakthrough Prize, visit http://breakthroughprize.org .