IN MY VIEW: Through a giant telescope darkly

Nov. 1, 2011
As you probably know by now, the 2011 Nobel Prize for Physics has been awarded to three leading researchers in astrophysics-namely Dr. Saul Perlmutter, Dr. Brian Schmidt, and Dr. Adam Riess.

As you probably know by now, the 2011 Nobel Prize for Physics has been awarded to three leading researchers in astrophysics—namely Dr. Saul Perlmutter (52), a professor at the University of California (Berkeley, CA); Dr. Brian Schmidt (44) of the Australian National University (Weston Creek, NSW, Australia); and Dr. Adam Riess (42), a professor of astrophysics at The Johns Hopkins University (Baltimore, MD) and the Space Telescope Science Institute, also in Baltimore. I am here largely commenting on the work of Prof. Perlmutter since he got the biggest payoff.

These three exceedingly eminent astronomers, all native-born US citizens, were honored for their important studies of the expansion of the universe following the so-called “Big Bang,” Their findings were so similar and equally timely that the Royal Swedish Nobel Prize Committee decided to award half the prize of 10 million Swedish kroner (US$1.4 million) to Prof. Perlmutter while the remaining half was divided equally between the other two researchers. I use the word ““timely” with some reservations since we are dealing with events that occurred many light-years ago.

Among Prof. Perlmutter’s myriad professional responsibilities, he heads the Supernova Cosmology Project at Berkeley and is an astrophysicist at the US Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California. Prof. Schmidt leads the High-z Supernova Research Team at the Australian National University. So a more powerful assemblage of astrophysical wattage would be harder to imagine.

The expanding universe was first proposed in the 1920s when it was thought that a universe with mainly physical matter would eventually slow down due to the forces of gravity. Reasonable enough. However, the two research groups, working independently, concluded from studies of exploding supernovae that the energy emitted by a Type 1a supernova could be enough to outshine an entire galaxy. Such events are rare; the most recent one in the Milky Way Galaxy occurred some 400 years ago.

As you may know, Type 1a supernovae all have similar amounts of mass so their position in a galaxy can be fairly easily determined. Their velocities can also be calculated by measuring the red shift as the supernovae speed away from their galaxies.

Now this is all very interesting, but most of the calculations were done nearly two decades ago, so the teams of the three researchers had to check the cosmic data again in great detail. It took Prof. Perlmutter’s crack team of post-docs four months of intensive calculations before the researchers agreed that our universe is indeed speeding up. “It’s got to be the slowest, ‘Aha!’ that you’ve ever heard,” said the doubting Prof. Perlmutter.

Since that sluggish discovery—some people might have termed it a series of errors—further developments in plausible theories have proceeded equally slowly. Einstein might have been pleased, but he was not available for discussions on his static universe. Nonetheless, the data would seem to suggest that his “fudge factor” or “cosmological constant” was pretty much on the money. “Das Fix Ist In,” Al and his buddies might have said. Or so it was until Saul, Adam, and Brian began sniffing around the Einsteinian universe.

The latest fiddling with the concepts of the “expanding universe” has given rise to the theory of “dark energy,” which is thought to comprise about 75% of the universe as we know it. Some astrophysicists think that 20% of the universe is made up of dark matter (don’t ask how they can do that!). A miserable 5% is stuff you can actually touch, such as human beings, moons, and so on. Think cosmological constants and fudge factors and you’ll be getting warmer.

In my view, much contemporary astrophysical theory is pretty much a load of old codswallop invented by astronomers who have spent far too much time in the sun. In fact, Prof. Schmidt already has a thriving Australian vineyard in New South Wales. “Care for a snoot of Nobel 2011, anyone?”

The expanding universe was first proposed in the 1920s when it was thought that a universe with mainly physical matter would eventually slow down due to the forces of gravity. Reasonable enough.

About the Author

Jeffrey Bairstow | Contributing Editor

Jeffrey Bairstow is a Contributing Editor for Laser Focus World; he previously served as Group Editorial Director.

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