Australian astrophysicist wins Nobel Prize

Professor Brian Schmidt helped discover that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating. Belinda Pratten

An astrophysicist from the Australian National University has jointly won the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics for his part in the discovery that the expansion of the Universe is accelerating.

Harvard-educated Brian Schmidt, a Laureate Fellow at the Australian National University, was named the joint winner along with Saul Perlmutter from the University of California and Adam G. Riess from the Johns Hopkins University and Space Telescope Science Institute.

Dr Riess and Professor Schmidt were part of the High­Z SN Search team, formed in 1994 to examine distant exploding stars called supernovae, which emit enormous amounts of light. Dr Perlmutter researched the same field as part of a separate project.

“All in all, the two research teams found over 50 distant supernovae whose light was weaker than expected - this was a sign that the expansion of the Universe was accelerating,” a press statement posted on the Nobel Prize website said.

“The discovery that this expansion is accelerating is astounding. If the expansion will continue to speed up the Universe will end in ice… The findings of the 2011 Nobel Laureates in Physics have helped to unveil a Universe that to a large extent is unknown to science.”

Professor Schmidt, who has been on the ANU staff since 1995, is now helping build the SkyMapper telescope, a new wide field survey telescope called located near Coonabarabran that will soon deliver images of previously undiscovered galaxies in the southern sky.

ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Young said Professor Schmidt’s work had “changed the face of astronomy.”

“He has shown that what we see in the skies is but a tiny fraction of what is really out there. Brian reminds us of the infinite mysteries yet to be understood,” Professor Young said.

“ANU congratulates a great man and celebrates his magnificent achievement.”

Professor Suzanne Cory, president of the Australian Academy of Science said Professor Schmidt’s work “had a profound and immediate effect on cosmology.”

“Previously, it had been thought that the expansion of the universe was slowing, or proceeding at a steady rate. Astrophysicists say the finding that the expansion is in fact accelerating has completely altered our understanding of the universe and opened up important new fields in the study of time and dark energy,” she said.

Professor Bryan Gaensler, an astrophysicist from the University of Sydney and Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for All-sky Astrophysics, said it was “hard to overstate the profound fundamental change that this discovery wrought on all of cosmology and discovery.”

“In 2011, the Nobel Prize for Physics has recognised one of the most jaw-dropping, unexpected, craziest results in the history of science - the Universe is accelerating!” he said.

“In barely more than a decade, we have gone from a comfortable picture of a mainly empty, gently decelerating, Universe, to broad acceptance that we live in a bizarre cosmos, suffused with as-yet-unexplained dark energy, tearing itself apart as it gains speed in all directions.”

“Beyond his outstanding research record as recognised by the Nobel committee today, what sets Brian apart is his unstinting commitment to Australian science - he is extraordinarily generous with his time for students, public events, review panels and committees; he often takes sides in debates that are to the detriment of his own interests but represent what’s best for the community; and he has even funded research activities at ANU out of his own personal funds when no other money was available,” said Professor Gaensler.

“A devoted family man, a talented viniculturist, a good friend to many within Australian astronomy, and now a Nobel Laureate - congratulations to Brian Schmidt!”