Karela Fry

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Dark energy

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AFP reported on the award of the Nobel prize in physics to a discovery which changed our view of the universe we live in:

A trio of astronomers won the Nobel Physics Prize on Tuesday for discovering that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating, a finding that implies that the cosmos will end in frozen nothingness.

The three are Saul Perlmutter and Adam Riess of the United States and US-Australian Brian Schmidt, who were honoured for findings that were — to their own admission — both a complete surprise and a little scary.

The young trio looked at so-called type 1a supernovae to set down a benchmark for the movement of light on a cosmological scale.

This kind of supernova, also called a white dwarf, can in the matter of a few weeks emit as much light as an entire galaxy.

But to their astonishment, the laureates found through observations of more than 50 distant supernovae that light from the dying stars was weaker than expected, meaning they were further away than anticipated.

They concluded that, instead of slowing down as previously believed, the expansion of the Universe that began after it was created by the Big Bang some 14 billion years ago was accelerating.

“The discovery that this expansion is accelerating is astounding,” the Nobel jury said, adding that if the acceleration continues “the Universe will end in ice.”

Asked about the discovery, Riess, who at 41 is the youngest of the laureates, recalled first thinking he’d gotten the calculation wrong.

“I remember thinking ah, I made a terrible mistake and then spent weeks looking for it,” he told the Nobel Prize website after being informed of his award.

It took a long time before he would “allow the possibility that the sign could be real and that the Universe could be accelerating,” he said.

Schmidt, 44, also described to nobelprize.org how “we were frantically trying to sort out where we had gone wrong.”

“It seemed too crazy to be right. We were a little scared,” he acknowledged.

The Guardian collected comments by many people, including this wonderful point made by Martin Rees:

I think, however, that this is one of the increasingly frequent instances when the Nobel Committee is damagingly constrained by its tradition that a prize can’t be shared between more than three individuals. The key papers recognised by this award were authored by two groups, each containing a dozen or so scientists. It would have been fairer, and would send a less distorted message about how this kind of science is actually done, if the award had been made collectively to all members of the two groups.

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Written by Arhopala Bazaloides

October 8, 2011 at 6:28 am

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