Johns Hopkins professor shares Nobel Prize in physics

More than anything else, in the wake of the elation and tumult accompanying Tuesday's announcement that he'd won a share of the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics, Johns Hopkins University astrophysicist Adam Riess wants to get back to work.

"I really want to keep doing the research I do, and not just supervise people doing research," a fate that sometimes befalls Nobel laureates, he said.

His discovery of dark energy, and the accelerating expansion of the universe was, after all, something he accomplished in 1998 at the University of California Berkeley — at the age of 28.

Since then, he has moved to Hopkins and used powerful instruments on the Hubble Space Telescope to push even farther toward the edge of the visible universe, and toward unraveling the mystery of dark energy.

He's 41 now, and if Congress doesn't drop its funding for Hubble's successor, the James Webb Space Telescope, Riess hopes to use that orbiting observatory to finish the job. He has written a key paper proposing to use the embattled Webb observatory to push his observations back in space and time to get a look at the very first supernova explosions.

Riess, who also works at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, will share the $1.49 million Nobel award with fellow American Saul Perlmutter and U.S.-Australian citizen Brian Schmidt.

Riess was the lead author on the first paper to describe the astonishing discovery — through his study of a type of exploding star called a Type 1a supernova — that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, driven by a still-unexplained force dubbed "dark energy." Perlmutter's team arrived at the same findings independently, but nearly simultaneously.

His teammate Schmidt, who now heads the Supernova Search Team at the Australian National University, and Perlmutter, who oversees the Supernova Cosmology Project at the University of California, will join Riess in December in Stockholm to receive what many consider the world's most prestigious prize.

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences selected the three scientists "for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe through observations of distant supernovae," according to the announcement.

Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels said Riess' research "made sense of an idea with which Albert Einstein himself never came to terms. It was like a missing piece in a puzzle that we have been assembling for generations."

He predicted that Riess would not pause long to bask in his new fame. "There is much we do not understand about dark matter, and Adam's research will continue to probe the unknown."

Matt Mountain, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, said Riess' path to the Nobel began with an assignment to calculate the mass of the universe, "one of those boring projects you give to a grad student."

Boring, perhaps, but crucial to astrophysicists' attempts to calculate whether the universe would expand forever, or gradually slow, stop, and then begin to contract toward a "Big Crunch."

The number Riess came up with indicated that the universe had a negative mass, Mountain said. It meant that the universe's expansion, first observed in the 1920s, was actually accelerating. The "dark energy" was pushing everything in the universe apart.

Mountain said the finding was as astonishing to scientists as it would be if he tossed his car keys into the air, only to watch them accelerate into the sky instead of fall back to Earth.

"Anybody else would have said, 'I've screwed up my calculations,'" Mountain said. Instead, Riess went back and checked his calculations.

"There are 52 ways to do something wrong," Riess said. " I make two to three mistakes a day, on a good day. But I spent weeks looking for a mistake and I couldn't find it."

Satisfied his calculations were correct, he reported his astonishing find to the world.

Since then, other researchers have used a variety of observations to confirm Riess' conclusion. "It's gone from being a surprise, to being the new standard model," he said.

In 1999, Riess joined Hopkins and the Space Telescope Science Institute, where he has since used instruments on the Hubble Space Telescope. With them, he's peered deeper into the universe and back in time to find more of the most distant Type 1a supernovae ever seen, revealing the time before the "transitional" period when the acceleration began.

"That switchover could only be seen with the Hubble Space Telescope," Mountain said. "The switch is what convinced everybody that dark energy is real." And that, he added, "is probably what convinced the Nobel committee."

Mountain and Riess both gave credit Tuesday to U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski of Maryland for her political support for Hubble, and to NASA astronauts who risked their lives to keep it working.

Riess has since written a key argument for using the planned Webb Space Telescope to probe beyond the limits of the Hubble to reveal the beginnings of the universe's expansion.

The Webb is said to be about 75 percent complete, with a 2018 launch date. But a $7 billion cost overrun has caught the attention of Congress, putting its NASA funding in jeopardy.

"I think [Riess's Nobel] will help," Mountain said. The Space Telescope Science Institute is expected to manage the Webb's science program. The Webb already accounts for 140 full-time jobs at the institute, and that's expected to grow to 275 after launch.

The Webb's huge mirror and infrared sensors should allow astronomers to see the very first supernovae and another type of star called Cepheid variables, and use them as mileposts to help calculate the changing expansion rate of the universe as it evolved, as well as its size, Mountain said.

It should also show whether dark energy has changed over time, a key to learning just what it is, and thereby solving what Mountain said has been called "one of the greatest mysteries in the universe."

Among the possible implications of dark energy, Mountain said, are that "we either live in a multivariate universe [just one of many]," or "there's a whole force of nature that we haven't discovered yet."

Riess said the work has been "an incredibly exciting adventure." He hopes, when the Nobel hubbub dies down, to go back to his research. Nobel winners are often shunted into supervisory roles, running departments or institutes. "I'd like to actually keep doing science."

At the Space Telescope Science Institute, the mood Tuesday was celebratory.

Mario Livio, an astrophysicist who has co-authored papers with Riess, said the award underscores the importance of having access to powerful telescopes such as the Hubble.

"I was essentially certain he would receive the Nobel Prize someday," Livio said. "The question was, when will they decide to actually give it to him?"

Marc Postman, an astronomer at the institute, collaborates with Riess on projects.

"Sometimes you meet people and you get a sense they're an extra special talent," he said. "Adam is one of those people."

Students arriving to take physics classes Tuesday said they were inspired by Riess' achievement.

"It makes me feel honored to be at Hopkins," said Rohit Bhattacharya, 18.

"In every class, there are esteemed minds," added Austin Jordan, 18. "There are so many great professors here; it's really cool."

Back home in Stoneleigh, south of Towson, neighbors said they've thrown parties for Riess before, when his discovery has won other prizes. They described him as "very humble," "brilliant" and "very well-rounded."

"Adam is probably the shining star of the neighborhood," said Mary Alice Thomas, whose kids play with Riess' children. "To have a Nobel Prize winner across the street is pretty amazing."

Just a few years earlier, in 2003, another Stoneleigh resident, Peter Agre, received news that he won the Nobel Prize for chemistry. At the time, Agre was a biochemist at Hopkins' School of Medicine.

Riess' seminal dark energy discovery has already won him accolades and some of the biggest prizes in science. In 2006 he won the $1 million, Hong Kong-based Shaw Prize in Astronomy, sometimes called the "Nobel of the East."

In 2007, he shared the Peter Gruber Foundation's Cosmology Prize — a gold medal and $500,000 — for his seminal dark energy findings.

And in 2008, Riess received a "genius" grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. He was honored for his work "designing experiments and devices to advance our understanding of the geometry of the universe and to trace the story of both its beginning and its end."

He said Tuesday he'd heard "rumors," or at least speculation, that he was on the Nobel committee's short list this year. And Hopkins' public relations apparatus was on alert in case that call came in from Sweden.

Curiously, Riess said, "I'd had a dream just a few hours earlier. It was a nice dream, that I'd won the Nobel Prize."

Since the call, he said, "it's been nuts," with nonstop phone calls from friends, colleagues and reporters. "I can't wait until the chemistry prize is announced tomorrow."

Sun reporters writers Mary Gail Hare and Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

Adam G. Riess

(pronounced "Reese")

Age: 41

Home: Lives in Stoneleigh with his wife, Nancy, and two children.

Childhood: Grew up in Warren, N.J. Father was an engineer-turned-entrepreneur; mother was a psychologist. Worked in his father's New York-style deli, taught an adult class in computer programming at age 13.

Education: Bachelor of science in physics, 1992, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Ph.D in astrophysics from Harvard in 1996. Was a post-doctoral student at University of California Berkeley when he made his 1998 dark energy discovery.

Work: Joined the Johns Hopkins University in 1999, where he is now the Krieger-Eisenhower professor of astronomy, and a scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute.

Interests: Sports. Minored in history at MIT and wrote his final research paper on baseball's 1919 "Black Sox Scandal."

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad