American Institute of Physics

2011 Nobel Prize in Physics: Background info and a statement by AIP Executive Director and CEO

The 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics will be awarded to Saul Perlmutter of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Berkeley, California, and the University of California, Berkeley; Brian Schmidt of the Australian National University; and Adam Riess of Johns Hopkins University and the Space Telescope Science Institute, both in Baltimore, Md., "for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the Universe through observations of distant supernovae," a discovery that reshaped our understanding of the cosmos and the ultimate fate of the universe.

Announced in 1998 by two research teams – one headed by Saul Perlmutter, which began its work in 1988, and the other by Brian Schmidt, who began his work in 1994 and was later joined by Adam Riess – the idea that the expansion of the universe was accelerating surprised the scientific community, but is now a well-established cornerstone of modern cosmology. The discovery:

•Constrains the ultimate fate of the universe, pointing toward a "big rip," the idea that the universe will continue its expansion forever.
•Addresses Einstein's cosmological constant, an element of his theory of general relativity.
•Provides the framework for the concept of dark energy, which makes up approximately 75 percent of the matter and energy in the universe.

Last year's prize was awarded to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov of the University of Manchester, U.K., for their pioneering work with graphene, a single-atom-thick sheet of carbon. http://journals.aip.org/Nobel2010.html


"It's really a fitting prize. This year's Nobel Prize in Physics recognizes a startling new revelation in our understanding of the cosmos. Based on measurements from the last 15 years, we now know that the expansion of our universe is not slowing, as was believed since the Big Bang theory first emerged, but that its expansion is actually accelerating. This acceleration has been the dominant force in the cosmos since our universe was about half its current age. This discovery also provides additional insights into Einstein's theory of general relativity, a cornerstone of physics and our understanding of the universe. So this discovery not only helps us understand the evolution of the universe, but it also gives us new insights into how it may end. It shows science at its best, where a startling discovery was made and confirmed by two independent teams."