Earlier this week, three U.S.-born scientists took center stage in the world’s most prestigious scientific production, winning the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics.
While Saul Perlmutter (University of California, Berkeley), Brian Schmidt (Australian National University) and Adam Riess (Johns Hopkins University/Space Telescope Science Institute) will go down in history as co-recipients of the eminent prize for their studies of exploding stars that revealed the expansion of the Universe is accelerating, one world-famous astronomer asserts there are others who also deserve to bask in the international limelight, including Texas A&M University’s Nicholas B. Suntzeff.
Suntzeff co-founded the High-Z Team along with Schmidt in 1994, at which time Riess was a graduate student finishing his thesis. Suntzeff served as the principal investigator on the discovery of the supernova (some 50 of them) whose light was inexplicably weaker than expected — the first indication that the expansion of the Universe was accelerating. 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 discovery that merited both the 2007 Gruber Prize (a $500,000 award) and the current Nobel.
Geoffrey W. Marcy, world-famous planet discoverer and a fellow astronomy professor at Berkeley along with Perlmutter, says Suntzeff — and two or three other astronomers in the world — deserves major credit for this Nobel Prize. He notes that, without Suntzeff’s early initiation of the study of supernova explosions, his identification and analyses of the explosions, and his many painstaking observations and precise calibrations, the discovery of dark energy would not have happened.
“I am sure that this Nobel Prize for your team would not have happened without you,” Marcy says in a congratulatory email message to Suntzeff. “This Nobel Prize goes to you as much as anyone, as you were the initiator, brains and muscle behind the crucial supernova work.”
Marcy, an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, and Suntzeff first met as graduate students at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where Marcy says Suntzeff was known for his careful and meticulous approach and ever mindful of both systematic biases and over-arching science goals. He says those inherent qualities in Suntzeff are exactly what was needed to make the supernova project succeed, leading to the discovery of dark energy.
Approach proved to be key in several respects for the High-Z Team, which Suntzeff describes as group anarchy — “all postdocs and little external funding, but we worked together extremely well in spite of this.” As team leaders, he and Schmidt employed a novel system that eschewed ego and seniority in favor of maximum effort and efficiency. Each year the team gave its data to different groups at different institutions — including the penultimate hand-off to Riess at Berkeley in 1998 — ensuring that the highest priority would be given to each part of the problem.
“I am proud to have co-founded along with Brian Schmidt the High-Z Supernova Team,” Suntzeff says. “I am especially proud that in organizing the team, I got everyone to agree that the people who did the most work would get the credit. This may seem like an obvious thing to do, but it is not in science. More often than not, it is the senior scientist that gets the credit and the people who did the real work are left out. The Nobel Prize in Physics has a sad case of this — the discovery of pulsars where the senior scientist was awarded the Prize and the graduate student who made the discovery was ignored. In the High-Z Team, we all agreed upon who deserved the most credit for the work done, and we made this person first author. In this sense, Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess are the clear heroes of the group.
“I am especially proud to say that our effort must be unique in Nobel science in that it was the junior workers — Brian and Adam were postdocs, and Adam started in our group as a grad student — that have received the credit. Every paper save one was led by a postdoc or graduate student, and they justly have deserved the credit and now fame as the driving force behind the discovery.”
Beyond Schmidt’s more obvious role, Suntzeff says Riess was vital to the High-Z Team, both because he had an independent method for measuring distances based on the data he had from Suntzeff’s Calan/Tololo Supernova Project and because he had time. Armed with his newly minted Harvard Ph.D., he moved to Berkeley to start his Miller Fellowship, taking the High-Z Team’s data as well as new data from the Hubble Space Telescope along for the trip. Once at Berkeley, Suntzeff says Riess cleared his desk and worked completely on the new data, probably putting in 12-to-14-hour days and even working on the project during his honeymoon.
“Adam appeared just at the right time, and without his effort and brilliance, we would have never caught up with Saul,” Suntzeff adds. “And without Brian checking everything Adam did, certainly mistakes would have been missed, which also would have slowed everything down.”
As opposed to the Universe’s expansion and the resulting race to unravel the mystery of dark energy — a delicious irony unto itself, Suntzeff muses.
“This must be perhaps the only Nobel Prize ever awarded for a discovery for which we have no explanation, not even an inkling of one,” he notes. “The results are solid: The Universe apparently is being driven into an acceleration by a process — perhaps an energy, but that is not even clear — for which there is no theoretical underpinning. It remains the biggest puzzle in physical science and maybe all of science. It has dominated the astronomical research since its discovery in 1998, and we are still as puzzled now as back then by what is causing this strange acceleration. It is as strange as if one would wake up some day and be puzzled by the fact that a rock thrown into the air does not fall back to Earth but continues to rise faster and faster finally speeding out into space free of the Earth’s gravity.
“Through Einstein’s famous formula, E=mc2, if one compares the mass of the Universe to this strange dark energy, the dark energy is three times more powerful than all the mass put together. It is now driving the future of the Universe, and all of us made of matter are now merely along for the ride.”
Click here to see the official Nobel Prize announcement and supporting background.
Learn more about Suntzeff’s research and Texas A&M Astronomy.
Click here to read a related feature story from Texas A&M’s campus newspaper, The Battalion.
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TIMELINE TO A DISCOVERY
An Analysis of Nick Suntzeff-led Breakthroughs that Led to THE Breakthrough
- 1986: Mark Phillips and Nicholas Suntzeff in Chile begin studying supernova with modern detectors and publish the first data with CCD detectors. Their study of supernova SN1986G shows that supernova are not all the same brightness.
- 1989: Suntzeff, Phillips and Mario Hamuy of the United States National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO)/Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in La Serena, Chile, show that the supernova SN1989B is fainter than other similar events and discover there is a correlation between supernova brightness and the speed at which the explosion brightens and dims.
- 1990: Suntzeff co-founds the Calan/Tololo Supernova Project with Phillips, Hamuy and Jose Maza (University of Chile), which uses 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’ eventual Nobel-Prize winning discovery.
- 1994: Suntzeff co-founds High-Z Supernova Search Teach along with Brian Schmidt.
- 1996: The Calan/Tololo project publishes the pioneering work on using Type Ia supernova to measure distances to better than 6 percent deep into the Universe. This calibration forms the basis for the distance measurements made by both groups.
- 1998: Both teams publish near-simultaneous papers, leading to the first of many shared honors as Science magazine’s “Scientific Breakthrough of the Year” for 1998.
- 2006: After 20 years at CTIO, Suntzeff accepts a faculty appointment at Texas A&M University as professor of physics, director of astronomy and inaugural holder of the Mitchell-Heep-Munnerlyn Endowed Chair in Observational Astronomy in the George P. and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Institute for Fundamental Physics and Astronomy.
- 2007: Suntzeff and 51 international researchers (including Perlmutter, Schmidt and Riess) shares in the 2007 Gruber Cosmology Prize, widely acknowledged as second only to the Nobel Prize in terms of importance in the field of cosmology.