“It went from ‘Oh, this is a terrible mistake’ to ‘Oh my God, this might be the right answer!'”
Transcript of the telephone interview with Adam G. Riess immediately following the announcement of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics, 4 October 2011. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Editorial Director of Nobel Media.
[Adam Riess] Hello?
[Adam Smith] Hello, may I speak to Adam Riess please?
[AR] This is he.
[AS] Oh hello, very nice to speak to you.
[AS] This is Adam Smith calling from Nobelprize.org, the website of the Nobel Prize in Stockholm.
[AS] Many congratulations on the news that you’ve just been awarded the Nobel Prize.
[AR] Thank you very much.
[AS] We have a tradition here at the website of recording extremely short telephone interviews with new Laureates; would you be able to speak for just a few minutes?
[AS] Thank you very much indeed. I know it’s early there in Baltimore. May I ask what you were doing when you heard the news from the committee?
[AR] I was sleeping and listening to my 10-month old son only sort of sleeping, and sort of crying and sleeping! [Laughs]
[AS] As they do, yes!
[AS] So you were awake for the news?
[AR] I was.
[AS] And, you’ve been awarded the Prize for this immensely surprising discovery that the expansion of the universe is accelerating …
[AS] … Can you remember the moment that you realised just what you’d found?
[AR] I do. I remembered going through the analysis of the data to the end. I remember seeing that the sign of the answer was, I would have said, wrong [Both Laugh]. And I remember thinking “Uh, I’ve made a terrible mistake, and I have to find this mistake”, and then spending weeks looking for it, and only after that starting to allow the possibility that the sign could be real, and then that the universe could be accelerating.
[AS] Yes. And you were working in competition with the team of Saul Perlmutter …
[AR] That’s true.
[AS] … Did that add to the sort of sense of excitement as you were gathering the data?
[AR] Oh absolutely! Absolutely. It, you know, it lent a sense of urgency, and when I did find out that they were seeing the same thing, it went from “Oh, this is a terrible mistake” to “Oh my God, this might be the right answer!” So, it was very exciting.
[AS] And you made the measurements – both teams made the measurements – by looking at these far off supernovae …
[AR] That’s right.
[AS] … How far away are we talking?
[AR] We are talking about 5-billion light years.
[AS] [Laughs] Okay. Mind-boggling distances. To explain the acceleration, you had to propose some sort of force pushing galaxies apart, and that’s what we refer to as “dark energy”.
[AR] Right. We actually did not have to propose that, seeing that there was, I would say, off-the-shelf and ready, a model from Albert Einstein, something he referred to as the cosmological constant, which would neatly do the trick. And so all we did was to say that that seemed like at that point the simplest hypothesis.
[AS] But Einstein had felt that he’d been wrong in proposing it, I gather.
[AR] That’s right, so maybe he should be getting the Nobel Prize again! [Both laugh]
[AS] And do we have any idea at all what dark energy is yet?
[AR] No. I wish we did! [Both Laugh] They didn’t give us the Nobel Prize for that!
[AS] [Laughs] What’s our best hope of finding out, do you think?
[AR] More experiments, and hopefully somebody else with some great ideas. But more experiments.
[AR] Probably some space satellite, you know, the use of our current facilities, taking a lot more data.
[AS] Okay. Last question.
[AS] When you’re tracking the infinite recesses of space in this way, does it not get a little bit scary thinking at such distances?
[AR] Is it scary? No, I would say I find it very calming. It just feels so big. [Pauses] So, I need to go, but thank you.
[AS] Of course, of course. We look forward to meeting you in Stockholm when you come to receive the Nobel Prize in December. Congratulations again.
[AR] All right.
[AS] Thank you. Bye bye.
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