Dr. Nicholas B. Suntzeff, professor of physics at Texas A&M University and a world-renowned expert in supernovae and cosmology, is one of 52 international researchers who will share in the 2007 Gruber Cosmology Prize for their work toward the discovery that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating.
The prestigious prize, valued at $500,000 and widely acknowledged as second only to the Nobel Prize in terms of importance in the field of cosmology, will be awarded to Saul Perlmutter and Brian Schmidt and their respective teams, the Supernova Cosmology Project and the High-Z Supernova Search Team, for their simultaneous discovery that “has radically changed our perception of cosmic evolution,” according to the citation.
Suntzeff co-founded the High-Z Team along with Schmidt in 1994, serving as the principal investigator on the discovery of the supernovae. Prior to that, he co-founded a previous group, the Calan/Tololo Supernova Project, that used the brightness from a specific type of supernova, Type Ia, to produce not only a precise calibration but also a precise measurement of the Hubble constant — a key finding that paved the way for both teams’ subsequent Gruber Prize-winning discovery.
The results from the Calan/Tololo survey and pioneering work on the search for distant supernovae by the Perlmutter group set the stage for the measurement of deceleration — or, much to their surprise, acceleration.
“Brian and I felt that we could also find these distant supernovae and, using the Calan/Tololo calibrations, measure the deceleration,” Suntzeff explains. “We formed the High-Z Team from our mutual collaborators.”
Each year the High-Z Team gave its data to different groups at different institutions, ensuring that the highest priority would be given to each part of the problem.
“I am particularly proud that our work in the High-Z Team gave credit to the scientists who did much of the work — the post-docs,” Suntzeff adds. “Our team has been unique in that almost all the papers we published had first authors who are post-docs, including the 1998 discovery paper led by Adam Riess.”
The two teams raced neck and neck toward a simultaneous conclusion that the Universe was larger than it should be and, therefore, not in deceleration but rather acceleration. The discovery, since dubbed dark energy, was honored as Science magazine’s “Scientific Breakthrough of the Year” in 1998.
“This is precisely what a cosmological constant of Einstein would do,” Suntzeff notes. “The dark energy also makes the Universe much older than one without it. There was tremendous theoretical prejudice against a non-zero cosmological constant, and our results were severely put to the test. But our data and results have held up and are widely accepted.
“Since then we have refined the value of this dark energy. No one understands what it is. It may be a cosmological constant. It may be some more complicated evolving energy field. It may point to higher dimensions needed by string theory. Or it may mean that Einstein’s general theory of relativity is wrong. But it is the dominant constituent of space, and its properties determine the ultimate fate of our Universe.”
Suntzeff, inaugural holder of the Mitchell-Heep-Munnerlyn Endowed Chair in Observational Astronomy within the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy, came to Texas A&M in spring 2006 to lead the University’s efforts to build a world-renowned program in astronomy and cosmology. Prior to that, he spent 20 years at the United States National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO)/Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in La Serena, Chile, where he was the associate director for science for NOAO and a tenured astronomer since 1996.
The Gruber Cosmology Prize is awarded annually in honor of a leading cosmologist, astronomer, astrophysicist or scientific philosopher for theoretical, analytical or conceptual discoveries leading to fundamental advances in the field.
The 2007 prize will be shared in four parts: by Schmidt at the Australian National University; Perlmutter at the University of California, Berkeley; and the fifty-one co-authors of the key papers produced by each respective team.
Suntzeff will be on hand to accept his share of the prize along with other members of the High-Z Team at a Sept. 7 ceremony at the University of Cambridge.
“The Gruber Prize is huge,” Suntzeff says. “Last year’s winners won the Nobel Prize this year. Beyond that obvious significance, it recognizes the teamwork involved in research and not just its leaders. Our High-Z Team was group anarchy — all post-docs and little external funding. But we worked together extremely well in spite of this.”
The Gruber Prize Program honors contemporary individuals in the fields of cosmology, genetics, neuroscience, justice and women’s rights, whose groundbreaking work provides new models that inspire and enable fundamental shifts in knowledge and culture. The Selection Advisory Boards choose individuals whose contributions in their respective fields advance our knowledge, potentially have a profound impact on our lives, and, in the case of the justice and women’s rights prizes, demonstrate courage and commitment in the face of significant obstacles.
The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation honors and encourages educational excellence, social justice and scientific achievements that better the human condition. For more information about Foundation guidelines and priorities, please visit www.gruberprizes.org.
To see the official press release from the Gruber Foundation as well as additional background on both the discovery and the recipients, go to http://www.gruberprizes.org/Press.php.
For more on Suntzeff’s research and Texas A&M astronomy, visit his Web site.
– aTm –