LSU Physicist Contributes to Nobel Prize Winning Research

11/29/2011 03:34 PM

BATON ROUGE – LSU Professor of Physics & Astronomy Bradley E. Schaefer has been invited to attend the Nobel Prize Award ceremony in Stockholm, Sweden, in recognition of his contribution to this year’s Nobel Prize winning research in physics. The research has led to the discovery of the accelerated expansion of the universe due to an unknown form of energy embedded in the fabric of space. This energy, known as “dark energy,” has been described as one of the greatest enigmas in physics today.

“We are extremely excited about Bradley’s contribution to the Nobel Prize-winning research in physics,” said Kevin Carman, dean, LSU College of Science. “This is a wonderful and richly deserved recognition; it also reflects well on the quality of our faculty and students and epitomizes the quality of research in the College of Science.”

In January 1999, two independent teams of researchers, the Supernova Cosmology Project, led by Saul Perlmutter from Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory and the University of California, and The High-z Supernova Search Team, led by Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess with the Australian National University and Johns Hopkins University, respectively, published the same surprising discovery that the well-known expansion of the universe was speeding up.

Schaefer, a member of Perlmutter’s Supernova Cosmology Project team, served as the observer on the WIYN telescope, located on Kitt Peak in Arizona, where he measured the brightness of all the supernovas.

Schaefer also co-authored one of the papers that documented the discovery of the accelerated expansion of the universe, a result that was not anticipated.

“Saul Perlmutter very much deserves the Nobel Prize,” said Schaefer. “He was the one person with the vision to realize that the project was important, he is the one who realized how to do it, and he is the one who organized and ran the whole Supernova Cosmology Project team.”

The original observations of the Supernova Cosmology Project concluded that the peak brightness of very distant supernovas, called type Ia supernovas, appear to be fainter than expected. These supernovas can be used as “mile markers” to measure the expansion history of the universe. According to Schaefer, the startling result was that the expansion of the universe is accelerating as if something is “pushing” it.

Scientists have known for nearly a century that the universe has been expanding as a result of the Big Bang that occurred about 14 billion years ago. However, the finding that this expansion is accelerating and will continue to accelerate is astonishing. The researchers suggest that the acceleration is driven by dark energy. Though the researchers are still unsure as to what dark energy is, they have determined that this energy makes up more than 70 percent of the universe.

This ground-breaking research also offers some scientific predictions of how the earth will end. According to the researchers, a consequence of this acceleration is that the universe will continue expanding forever, becoming colder and emptier as time goes on.

In 1999, the two research teams came to the same result, confirming the acceleration of the universe and that roughly three-quarters of the mass energy of the universe is made up of dark energy. In 2003, a highly-sensitive map of the sky in microwave light with the Wilkerson Microwave Anistropy Probe provided confirmation of the existence of dark energy. The fact that the two independent teams came to the same conclusion provided the scientific evidence needed to support a Nobel Prize in Physics.

“The astrophysics community has known for about five years that Perlmutter, Schmidt and Riess would win the Novel Prize, so the only question was which year they would receive the award,” said Schaefer.
The 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics has been awarded to the leaders of the two research teams with one-half of the award to Perlmutter and the other half jointly awarded to Schmidt and Riess. Schaefer, along with all of the members of the Supernova Cosmology Project team, were also recipients of the 2007 Gruber Prize for Cosmology, a $500,000 award.

Nobel Week in Stockholm is held Dec. 7 - 13. The week’s activities include a series of press conferences, Nobel lectures, receptions, concerts and balls. The Nobel Prize award ceremony will take place Dec. 10 in the Stockholm Concert Hall.

For a complete schedule of events, go to

Ashley  Berthelot 
LSU Research Communications
Dawn  Jenkins 
LSU College of Science

Posted on Tuesday, November 29, 2011