At a gala ceremony November 9, the Breakthrough Prize Foundation announced $36M in prizes to a collection of the world's top scientists including LSU's Brad Schaefer and his colleagues on the Supernova Cosmology Project. Sergey Brin (co-founder of Google) and Anne Wojcicki, Jack Ma (founder and Executive Chairman of Alibaba) andCathy Zhang, Mark Zuckerberg (co-founder of Facebook) and Priscilla Chan, and Yuri and Julia Milner handed out the awards at a Silicon Valley gala hosted by Seth MacFarlane and attended by celebrity guests. The prize winners were selected by a scientific advisory panel which includedSteven Hawking. The ceremony was televised November 15.
Several years ago, two teams of physicists and astronomers independently made the startling and unexpected discovery that the expansion of the Universe was speeding up. The expansion of the Universe has been known for decades and is one of the prime pieces of evidence supporting the notion of a Big Bang. It was not expected, though, that the expansion is speeding up. Apparently there is a mysterious component of the Universe dubbed "dark energy" which is responsible. Physicists and astronomers do not understand its nature, but they know that it makes up roughly 70% of the energy of the Universe. The discovery was honored with a Nobel Prize in 2011.
Now LSU's Schaefer and his colleagues on the discovery teams have been awarded this year's Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. Schaefer, Alumni Professor and Distinguished Research Master in LSU's Physics and Astronomy Department, was a member of the Supernova Cosmology Project that observed very distant supernovas. These stars produce such enormously bright explosions as they die that they can be seen from great distances across the Universe. The key discovery was that these exploding stars, called type Ia supernovas, appear to be fainter than expected. This implies that the stars are farther away than expected, and that the expansion of the Universe must be accelerating, not slowing down as had been expected.