Adam Riess studies exploding stars known as supernovas, so he's used to making surprising discoveries in space. But yesterday's biggest surprise was a message in his inbox -- telling him he will share a $1 million prize for his work in astronomy.
"I woke up in the morning to check my e-mail, and there was a message from a Hong Kong reporter asking if he could interview me about winning the Shaw Prize," said Riess, 36, an astronomy professor at the Johns Hopkins University who shared in the 1998 discovery that the universe is expanding faster as time goes on.
A fax later in the day confirmed he had been awarded the Shaw Prize, an international award given each year to scientists who make groundbreaking discoveries in astronomy, life sciences and medicine, and mathematics.
Riess did not apply for the award and said yesterday's announcement was a total surprise.
"That was pretty cool," he said.
He will split the prize money with two other astronomers from the research teams that made the 1998 discovery, Saul Perlmutter of the University of California, Berkeley, and Brian P. Schmidt of the Australian National University.
The award is administered by the Shaw Prize Foundation based in Hong Kong. The prizes, first awarded in 2004, were endowed by Sir Run Run Shaw, a 99-year-old Chinese media mogul and philanthropist.
Riess said he will receive his portion of the award money in September, but he hasn't figured out how he'll spend it.
In 1998, Riess was a member of the High-Z Supernova Search Team, one of two groups of astronomers that discovered that the universe is not only expanding but doing so at an ever-faster rate.
Riess and the other scientists used light emitted from distant supernovas to make their discovery. By analyzing the intensity of the light coming from the exploded stars, they could determine how distant they were from Earth.
"It's just like seeing a distant pair of headlights on the highway and knowing how far away the car is," Riess said. "We do the same thing with supernovas."
The scientists also studied the wavelength of light from supernovas, particularly the Doppler shift effect. It means the wavelength of light appears to change, depending on whether the source of the light is moving toward or away from the observer.
The researchers came to the surprising conclusion that the galaxies in which the supernovas are embedded are accelerating away from each other -- hence, the universe is expanding more quickly than it used to be.
"This discovery shows that there is something we don't understand right at the heart of gravity," said Robert Kirshner, a Harvard University astronomer who was also involved in the 1998 research and advised when the Hopkins scientist was a graduate student. "There is some big mystery about the universe."
Riess subsequently moved to Baltimore and now uses the Hubble Space Telescope to explore the mystery of what makes the universe expand. In addition to teaching at Hopkins, he works at the Space Telescope Science Institute, the agency that manages the Hubble telescope science program.
"Adam has been leading the way in using Hubble to find distant supernovas and find out how the universe was expanding when it was half its current age, or a third of its current age," said Kirshner.
The 1998 finding, hailed as Breakthrough of the Year by Science magazine, supported a supposition reluctantly made by Albert Einstein that some force must exist to prevent the universe from collapsing on itself because of gravity.
That force has become known as "dark energy," and is now believed to be pushing the universe to expand in opposition to another force known as "dark matter."
"It turns out that the story of the expansion of the universe is the struggle between two forces," said Riess, whose recent research has focused on elucidating the details of that struggle. "The force of dark energy is the foot on the gas pedal, and dark matter is the force on the brake."