Towson Resident Wins Nobel Prize in Physics

Adam Riess, a Johns Hopkins astrophysicist, was honored for a 1998 discovery that the universe is expanding at a faster rate. He shares the prize with two other scientists.

It was early Tuesday morning and Adam Riess had already awoken to the sounds of his 10-month-old son stirring in his Stoneleigh home.

And then the phone rang.

The clock read 5:36 a.m.

“It's famous, it's like a 15 minute window,” Riess said. “Either someone was pulling my leg or this is 'The Call.'”

It was no prank. The call was from Stockholm. Riess, an astrophysicist, and two colleagues were awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics on Tuesday for a 1998 discovery that the universe’s expansion is accelerating.

Riess, a  professor in physics and astronomy, was recognized "for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae," according to a press release from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Riess, 41, shares the award with colleagues Brian P. Schmidt of the Australian National University, and of theUniversity of California, Berkeley. Riess and Schmidt will split half of the $1.4 million prize. Perlmutter will receive the other half. In December, Riess will travel to Sweden to receive a medal, diploma and a cash award worth about $360,800.

When asked during a press conference how he was celebrating, Riess said: "There was champagne in my office, that was a good start."

Riess praised the team that worked with him on the 1998 discovery and said he wished the Nobel Prize could be awarded to entire teams.

He also talked about how the competition between his team at the University of California, Berkeley, and Perlmutter's team at the same school—"right up the hill," he said—helped accelerate the discovery. Several members of the two teams used to play "mud football" together on the California campus, he said.

Perlmutter heads the Supernova Cosmology Project at Berkeley, launched in 1998. Riess and Schmidt worked on a competing project, the High-z Supernova Search Team. The scientists expected to find evidence that the universe was expanding at a slower rate. But both teams ended up finding the opposite—the universe was expanding at a faster rate and that dark energy was probably the cause. Dark energy, however, is still a mystery.

The discovery is one of the most significant in the history of astrophysics and was dubbed by Science Magazine in 1998 as the "The Breakthrough Discovery of the Year."

“I think (the discovery) means we still have a lot to learn about the universe. We still have a lot to learn about basic science,” Riess said. “Over time, we do our best job to teach kids about science but science is just a living breathing thing. So this just reminds us to keep searching.”

The scientists used signs of supernovae in numerous galaxies to measure the universe's "growth spurt," as Riess put it. Read up on the science behind the discovery.

Riess expressed anticipation for the James Webb Space Telescope and other future space- and ground-based projects to explore further into the universe, and hoped that his win will help those projects proceed.

While the worldwide science community was praising the Nobel-winning scientist for universe-changing discoveries, back in Riess’ neighborhood the married father of two is known best for being a great neighbor. He's not "Dr. Riess" or "Professor Riess." Friends call him Adam, children call him Mr. Adam.

"He's just a humble scientist," said Mary Alice Thomas, who lives across the street from Riess. "Just a great family man. We don't get to see the scientist side here."

Thomas noticed a bit of commotion on Tuesday morning outside Riess' Sheffield Road home and soon word spread of her neighbor's win.

"He's won apparently so many illustrious awards," said Claudia Thomas, another neighbor. "But the thing that surprises me is we now have two Nobel Prize winners in Stoneleigh."

Peter Agre won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 2003 for the discovery of aquaporins, which regulate water flow in cells.  

Riess, a Warren, NJ, native, graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1992 and earned his doctorate from Harvard University in 1996, just two years before the winning discovery was made while he was a fellow at Berkeley. He is also an avid sports fan who pulls for the Boston Red Sox.

When asked if the Nobel Prize took the sting out of the Red Sox missing the playoffs this year, he replied: “I’ve spent a lot of years in Boston. I’ve seen a lot of collapses. Nothing ever takes the sting out of those.”

Riess said on Tuesday that his interest in science began in high school in New Jersey, where he also washed dishes in his father's deli, according to a Hopkins article. He said his science teacher in high school, Dr. Jeff Charney, was “a great science teacher.”

Charney had similar praise for his former student at Watchung Hills Regional High School in New Jersey.

"Adam was one of the five brightest students I have ever taught," Charney said in a press release. "He was more than an exceptional student. He was a thinker and a questioner. His ability to assimilate knowledge and apply it to novel situations was extremely impressive."

Riess' other awards include a 2008 fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation ("the genius grant"), the 2007 Cosmology Prize from the Peter Gruber Foundation, and the $1 million Shaw Prize in 2006. Riess was elected to join the National Academy of Sciences in 2009.

Riess is the 35th Nobel laureate to be associated with Hopkins, and is one of four who currently work at the university.

"This is an amazing day for all of us at Johns Hopkins, and we are immensely proud," Hopkins President Ronald J. Daniels said in a press release. "Dr. Riess's passion to know more, and the energy with which he pursues that passion, exemplify the commitment made by all of us across Johns Hopkins to deploy knowledge to create a better and more humane world. That hunger to always know more is what makes the Johns Hopkins faculty so extraordinary."

Riess said in the news conference that he tries "to avoid having a favorite theory of what dark energy is.

"When you're collecting data you need to be open minded," he said.

Nick October 04, 2011 at 03:21 PM
I guess we should just do away with all research then. Nothing good ever came of it anyway.
Bart October 04, 2011 at 03:41 PM
Yeah, what's wrong with leeches, candlelight and horse and buggies? Ahh, the good old days!
CB9678 October 04, 2011 at 05:45 PM
Since it is not your money.....it does not really matter. The private endowment of the Nobel awards has given the money to these two scientist who EARNED it!
Needaname October 04, 2011 at 05:59 PM
Well said Bart !
cheryl October 05, 2011 at 12:13 AM


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