Galactic Interactions

This is really cool. Several years ago, the Gruber Foundation established a prize in cosmology. Last year (2006) the award went to John Mather and the COBE team; you may recall that Mather was one of the two winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics. This year the award is being split four ways: (1) Saul Perlmutter, leader of the Supernova Cosmology Project (SCP); (2) Brian Schmidt, leader of the High-Z Supernova Team (HZT); (3) the members of the SCP who were on the Perlmutter ’99 paper; and (4) the members of the HZT who were on the Riess ’98 paper. These two papers were the refereed-journal announcements to the world of the discovery that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating. (Both teams had previously made announcements at conferences, starting with the January 1998 AAS meeting.) Anything you hear about Dark Energy today comes, to some degree, from that discovery. Although the term doesn’t predate that discovery, scientific thinking about it does, and indeed goes all the way back to Einstein. However, the tremendous interest in it today comes from the observations of the accelerating Universe which told us that Dark Energy (a more general form of what is called the Cosmological Constant) is, probably, real.

What to me is coolest about this award is that it’s going to the groups. Usually in science we honor and award the Warrior Hero, the single Big Name who was the brilliant and creative scientist who did everything. The Nobel Prize went to Smoot and Mather. Assuredly the reason for the Nobel Prize was extremely worthy, and assuredly those two gentlemen deserved it. But the Gruber prize recognized the team without which Mather could never have done the work that he did in order to win the Nobel Prize.

I will speak of the SCP, because that’s where I was. HZT people, please don’t feel neglected, but obviously I don’t know the internals of that nearly as well.

As for the division, I like it. I think Saul Perlmutter really does deserve to split it halfway with “the rest of the authors of the paper.” Saul was unambiguously the leader of that effort. It was Saul’s vision, drive, tenacity, and confidence in the face of huge obstacles that let the high-redshift supernova search succeed in finding the kind of supernovae needed to make the measurement we needed to make. (It was luck, of course, not Saul’s doing, that the measurement came out with such an amazingly cool and, to many, unexpected result.) But, of course, many of the rest of us devoted a lot of creative energy and talent into making this project work. I did my post doc from 1996-2001 with the Supernova Cosmology Project, the most exciting result of which was the Perlmutter ’99 paper. I kept working with the SCP on this stuff for a few years after I got to Vanderbilt, culminating in the Knop 2003 paper. I, along with many others listed in the names of the “Supernova Cosmology Project,” will never be a remembered name in the annals of the Warrior Hero Scientists, but it is nice to see the lot of us receive some real recognition as a group for the group effort that went into this remarkable discovery.

It’s a $500,000 award, but given that I’m sharing a quarter of that award with about 30 other people, my payout will be a couple of orders of magnitude less. I may just be able to pay off a student loan that I’ve been paying down for a deade or so now….

The formal award will be on September 7 at the University of Cambridge. At the moment, I don’t know if I will be able to attend. Not only is that expensive to get to, but it looks like it might directly conflict with travel I will need to be doing for the new job I’m going to be starting.

In the near future, I will try to write my “definitive” blog posting in which I describe, hopefully for a general audience, how the supernova observations tell us that the Universe is accelerating. I”ve given a few different talks about this to a popular audience, most recently at a few Shapley lectures this year, and in June 2006 at Hypericon.

Comments

  1. #1 Steinn Sigurdsson
    July 17, 2007

    Congratulations!
    Ironic, given the timing, but very cool.

  2. #2 Guru
    July 17, 2007

    Dear Rob,

    Congratulations!

    Guru

  3. #3 JuliaL
    July 17, 2007

    In the near future, I will try to write my “definitive” blog posting in which I describe, hopefully for a general audience, how the supernova observations tell us that the Universe is accelerating.

    Yes, yes! Try for a very general audience, please.

  4. #4 Urbano
    July 17, 2007

    Congratulations!! Really nice.

  5. #5 CanuckRob
    July 17, 2007

    Congratulations. Looking forward to that post.

  6. #6 Scott H.
    July 17, 2007

    Congratulations! Is it too late to add a postscript to your letter of resignation from Vanderbilt?

  7. #7 ColoRambler
    July 17, 2007

    Congratulations!

    As someone else already noticed, a little ironic, but I imagine your soon-to-be-former employer won’t figure out exactly what it’s losing.

  8. #8 Nancy Knop
    July 17, 2007

    Your mom is very proud of you – for your past AND for your future.

  9. #9 Super Sally
    July 17, 2007

    Janet’s mom is proud of you too, and very impressed that the prize reaches out to those who toil to make the “discovery” happen and get the information disseminated. As we say in our family, “Atta-boy!” (used generically for both genders).

  10. #10 Brian Cooksey
    July 17, 2007

    Congratulations!

    And, yeah, when you look up “ironic timing” in the dictionary it links to this post.

  11. #11 Brad Holden
    July 17, 2007

    Congratulations Rob. I heard about this today and I thought it was really good that everyone got honored, not just the biggest of big names.

  12. #12 Azra
    July 17, 2007

    Oh wow,I’m so pleased to hear that, congratulations!

  13. #13 Jeff Arkin
    July 17, 2007

    Wow! Great work by the only genius I know with a personality!!! Congrats. Keep up the great work.

  14. #14 Alex Kim
    July 17, 2007

    Hi Rob, just had a tea here at LBL celebrating the Gruber Prize. Of course your name was read off as one of the winners. Hope you have as much success in your new career.

  15. #15 Rupen Savoulian
    July 18, 2007

    I’m a regular reader of your blog, Galactic Interactions. I’m generally interested in science subjects, whether it is astronomy/physics, biology, evolution – if there is a documentary on TV about silkworms, I’ll sit and watch it.

    Sorry to hear that you did not get tenure – I think that Vanderbilt will be worse off without you as a working astronomer.

    Enjoy your blog, and I read it at least twice a week. I do not have a comment on a particular posting, except that you have inspired me to study more science at university level. I kind of fell into software testing/programming, and I’ve always wanted to get into science. Not that I’m Einstein/Hawking smart, I’m not. I certainly do not think that the Discovery Channel will be beating a path to my door, or that I will ever win the Nobel prize. Most students go into physics/astronomy expecting to become an Einsten/Hawking/Penrose celebrity professor. Not all of us are Einstein/Hawking/Penrose smart, and this realisation leads many students to simply give up on physics/astronomy. That is a shame, because otherwise talented people who could make a wonderful contribution to physics/astronomy become discouraged and leave the subject. All physics/astronomy is important, just as much as biology, geology and anthropology.

    Being an astronomer/physicist is something quite impressive to me, and if you want a ‘reward’ for your work, take consolation that while you were denied NSF funding and tenure, your blogging efforts certainly helped me in my feeble attempt to understand astronomy, the nature of scientific evidence, battling creationist/intelligent design ignorance, and generally be inspired to learn the endlessly fascinating subject of astronomy.

    Australia has a long-standing tradition of anti-education, anti-intellectual ockerism. Yes, I made up that last word, ‘ocker’ being Australian vernacular for a boorish, ignorant, xenophobic, hard-drinking (usually male) slob who is devoted to alcohol, sport and bigotry. Ockerism is alive and well in Australia. There’s lots of beer, sport, football and gambling in Australia, but we need more discussion about climate change, oil politics, the Iraq war, and physics/astronomy.

    The intelligent design movement, while not as influential or large as it is in the United States, is gaining clout in Australia. More politicians are pandering to the creationist bigotry. We have our own versions of Ken Ham here, some of whom have been elected to parliament. The best response to the dogmatic brigade is a sound grounding in science education, especially physics/astronomy. I especially enjoyed your posts last month on creationist canards.

    I mean this one:
    http://scienceblogs.com/interactions/2007/06/creationist_canard_1_evolution.php

    and this one:
    http://scienceblogs.com/interactions/2007/06/creationist_canard_2_evolution.php

    If it is any consolation, we all have to deal with dummies in our lives, and there is no shortage of them in Sydney. Most of the mainstream media programming is garbage; Big Brother, Biggest Loser, Desperate Housewives all the other horseshit. Yes, we get a few documentaries, half-hour science programme called Catalyst, and then back to the walking zombie media-megaplex wasteland. So reading about physics/astronomy, Pharyngula blog, Jason Rosenhouse’s evolution blog, is a refreshing reminder that there are thinking people out there.

    So I just wanted to say that your work on the blog is appreciated, especially when you write about the basic concepts of astronomy/physics. Making the subject accessible is always necessary. More power to you.

  16. #16 Rob Knop
    July 18, 2007

    Rupen — thank you very much!

  17. #17 Brandon
    July 18, 2007

    That’s freakin’ sweet, congratulations.

  18. #18 Filip
    July 19, 2007

    Congratulations, Rob.
    I’m from Bulgaria and have a blog of mine about the Universe. But since I’m not a pro, most of what I learn and write for my readers is thanks to blogs like yours. Keep up the good work!

    Fil