The 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to three scientists: Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess. Their observations of distant exploding stars led them to the startling discovery that the expansion of the universe is accelerating. This discovery laid the groundwork for the idea that a mysterious force called dark energy, which makes up 75 percent of the universe – yet has never been detected – is fueling the acceleration.
Perlmutter, a researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California, headed the Supernova Cosmology Project, which began observations in 1988. Schmidt, of the Australian National University, started the High-Z Supernova Search Team in 1994; it was later joined by Riess, of Johns Hopkins University and the Space Telescope Science Institute, who played a crucial role in the observations.
Between them, the two teams found more than 50 supernovae whose light was weaker than expected – an indication not only that the universe was expanding, as had been expected, but that it was expanding ever faster. The discovery came as a complete surprise, even to the discoverers, and its announcement in 1998 profoundly shook our view of the universe.
"I'm thrilled for Adam, Brian and Saul and the teams they have led,” said Roger Blandford, director of the Kavli Institute of Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. “It was a great discovery, and it's looking like a vindication of the original proposal Albert Einstein made 94 years ago."
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Real-time blog at Guardian UK: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/blog/2011/oct/04/nobel-prize-physics