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.