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Adam Riess of Johns Hopkins Accepts 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics

December 10, 2011
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Adam Riess, a professor in physics and astronomy at The Johns Hopkins University and a research scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute, today accepted the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences during a ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden.

Riess (pronounced “Reese”), 42, shares this year’s prize with Saul Perlmutter, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, whose Supernova Cosmology Project team published similar results shortly after those published by Riess, and also with High-z teammate Brian Schmidt, of the Australian National University. Both teams shared the Peter Gruber Foundation’s 2007 Cosmology Prize – a gold medal and $500,000 – for the discovery of dark energy, which Science Magazine called “The Breakthrough Discovery of the Year” in 1998. The researchers also shared the 2006 Shaw Prize in astronomy for the same discovery.

Adam Riess

Adam Riess

“I am incredibly honored to receive this award for the discovery made with my colleagues.  This week has been magical, sort of like scientists’ fantasy camp.  I look forward to sharing the glow of this event with those in Baltimore when I return,” said Riess.

Considered the most prestigious prize in the world, the Nobel has been awarded for achievements in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace since 1901 by the Nobel Foundation in Stockholm, Sweden.

Riess is the 35th person associated with Johns Hopkins as a faculty member, fellow or graduate to win a Nobel Prize. He joins three other Nobel laureates on the university’s current faculty: Riccardo Giacconi, research professor of physics and astronomy, who won the physics prize in 2002; Peter Agre, 1974 School of Medicine graduate, former professor in the School of Medicine and now director of the Malaria Research Institute in the Bloomberg School of Public Health, who won the chemistry prize in 2002, and Carol Greider, professor and director of molecular biology and genetics in the School of Medicine, who won 2009’s physiology or medicine prize.

An astrophysicist, Riess was the High-z Supernova Search Team’s leader in discovering that dark energy, a mysterious and still unexplained force, is driving the universe to expand at an ever-faster rate, overcoming the effects of gravity. He was first author on a paper published in September 1998 by one of two competing groups of scientists (the other, led by fellow Nobel Laureate Saul Perlmutter) that made the startling discovery.

It was startling because Riess and the High-Z team anticipated finding that gravity – the attractive force that holds things together – had slowed the universe’s rate of expansion over time. Instead, the astronomers found that the rate of expansion is actually accelerating.

“If you tossed a ball into the air and it kept right on going up, instead of falling to the ground, you would undoubtedly be very surprised. Well, that’s about how surprised we were with this result,” said Riess.

Those observations sent the team back to the idea — first conceived by Albert Einstein but later rejected as his “biggest blunder” — that the so-called vacuum of space might produce a sort of ‘anti gravity’ energy that could act repulsively and would accelerate the expansion of the universe. Suddenly, that idea made sense.

Riess and other experts in the field refer to the phenomenon as “dark energy” and posit that it may account for up to 70 percent of the universe, “even though,” he confesses, “we still don’t understand it well at all.

Subsequent Hubble Space Telescope observations by Riess and the High-z SN team helped confirm the initial result in 2004.

Riess is a 1992 graduate of MIT, with a major in physics and a minor in history. He earned his doctorate in astrophysics from Harvard University in 1996. From 1996 to 1999, while the initial discovery was made, he was a Miller Fellow at the University of California, Berkeley. He has been an astronomer with the Space Telescope Science Institute since 1999, and joined the faculty at Johns Hopkins in 2006.

In 2008, Riess was named a winner of one of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s so-called “genius grants” for this research.


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