Star turn for astronomer who solved universal riddle

Nobel laureate Professor Brian SchmidtAN AUSTRALIAN who found that the universe is accelerating and will end with a whimper rather than a bang has won the Nobel prize in physics. Brian Schmidt’s research suggests an invisible force known as dark energy is pushing the cosmos ever faster apart. Professor Schmidt, of the Australian National University, is the country’s 12th Nobel laureate and the first to receive the honour in physics since 1915. ”It’s extremely exciting, it’s obviously pretty surprising to get the call,” he said last night. The astronomer said he was feeling bewildered, but hoped to use the award to remind people of the importance of science. Australia’s Chief Scientist, Ian Chubb, said: “it could not have happened to a nicer bloke.”

“I am absolutely delighted for Brian and his people at Stromlo. They all endured a pretty traumatic time [during the 2003 bushfire] and have managed a slow and steady rebuild.” The Australian National University vice-chancellor, Ian Young, said the phones were ringing hot from about 9pm last night. He said Professor Schmidt’s life ”is going to change entirely”. “One of the issues we will need to discuss with Brian is how the ANU is going to support him to continue to undertake his outstanding work while he handles all the demands of this significant global recognition.” Professor Schmidt, 44, won the prize with American researchers Adam Riess, of Johns Hopkins University, and Saul Perlmutter, of the University of California. Professor Perlmutter will receive one half of the 10 million Swedish kroner ($1.5 million) prize, with Professors Schmidt and Riess sharing the other half.

In 1994, Professor Schmidt formed an international research team to study how fast the universe was expanding by observing distant exploding stars, called Type 1a supernova. ”When we did that measurement we found something extremely, well, I would say unexpected,” Professor Schmidt said. To the shock of astronomers, the team, including Professor Riess, found the rate at which the cosmos is flying apart is speeding up, rather than slowing down under the pull of gravity. A team led by Professor Perlmutter independently reached the same conclusion. The discovery was named the scientific breakthrough of the year in 1998 by the journal Science.

It suggests the cosmos will expand forever, until it becomes a cold, dark and empty place. As Professor Schmidt has said: ”The universe is slowly fading away on us.” This accelerating expansion also implies the existence of a repulsive force that pervades the cosmos. The leading candidate for this mysterious dark energy, which is thought to make up about 72 per cent of the universe, is the repulsive energy of empty space – a concept first proposed by Albert Einstein almost a century ago.

Professor Schmidt continues to use supernova to study the accelerating universe. Born in the US, Professor Schmidt has joint American and Australian citizenship. After completing his PhD at Harvard University, he joined the staff of the Australian National University in 1995, and was made a Federation Fellow in 2005. He has won many accolades, including the inaugural federal government Malcolm McIntosh award for achievement in the physical sciences in 2000 and the Australian Academy of Science’s Pawsey Medal in 2001. A keen cook and wine maker, he grows pinot noir grapes on his property outside Canberra. – smh