Interview with the 2011 Nobel Laureates in Physics Saul Perlmutter, Brian P. Schmidt and Adam G. Riess, 6 December 2011. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Editorial Director of Nobel Media.
The Laureates discuss how an assumed error turned into the surprise discovery that the universe is expanding and why their theory was readily accepted by peers. The laureates also explain their motivations for becoming astronomers, describe how amateur astronomers have helped research supernovae, and the importance of working with other scientists in person rather than teleconferencing. Other topics covered include their advice for students interested in studying astronomy and how they now will approach their next experiments after being awarded the Nobel Prize.
The 2011 Nobel Laureates met at the Bernadotte Library in Stockholm on 9 December 2011 for the traditional round-table discussion and TV program ‘Nobel Minds’. The Laureates discuss issues of global concern, their own research, and their early influences.
Telephone interview with Brian P. Schmidt following the announcement of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics, 4 October 2011. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Editorial Director of Nobel Media.
[Adam Smith] Hello, Adam Smith.
[Brian Schmidt] Hello, this is Brian.
[AS] How very kind of you to call. Thank you so much. Let me please start by congratulating you, adding to the many congratulations you must already have received!
[BS] Thank you.
[AS] And, unlike your co-Laureates who were in America, it was evening when you received the call, so what were you doing when it came?
[BS] I was preparing dinner, which I sadly have not yet eaten!
[AS] [Laughs] Nobody has thought to bring you food during this time!
[BS] Well, I really haven’t had a chance between … I’ve had TV crews and picture crews and lots of phone calls, so I really wouldn’t have had a chance to eat I’m afraid. But we’re getting towards the place where I can go to bed here!
[AS] Yes, it’s coming up to half-past midnight, is that right, with you now?
[BS] That’s right.
[AS] I guess you can soon escape. But it’ll all start again in the morning.
[BS] Yes, I’m teed up for a 6:45am interview on all the TV shows here in Australia.
[AS] Yes, one does become big news.
[BS] Yes, which is great.
[AS] [Laughs] If we turn to the work. The accelerating expansion of the universe when it was announced in 1998 was a huge surprise to everybody. Do you remember the surprise you felt?
[BS] Ah yes. Certainly the first surprise was when Adam and I were talking about the first results that he was coming out with, and we could see the results and the data. And so, I have to admit at that point I just figured that a mistake had been made. But that mistake never really went away. And so, after about 6 weeks, I think the surprise of what was in the data had worn off, but then I think we had to face the realities that we were going to have to tell the world about it. And I wasn’t so convinced that they would be terribly kind in response to our findings, as it seemed just crazy.
[AS] And were they kind? Was the reception good?
[BS] Surprisingly so. I think that the idea of the accelerating universe, indicating that there was some other big thing in the universe, other than things that have normal gravity, meant that a lot of the problems that existed in cosmology back in 1998 were suddenly solved if this stuff existed. So there was a lot of people, especially theorists, who wanted the universe to be geometrically flat, which means it had to have a lot of stuff in it that we just didn’t know was there. And this stuff solved that problem. It gave the extra matter in the universe that needed to be flat.
[AS] But leaving of course an enormous number of questions unsolved. And it seems that cosmologists are comfortable with a large degree of uncertainty.
[BS] So, we have an uncertainty of what the dark energy actually is. That is, why does it exist, and what is its precise form. But the model of dark energy, dark matter, normal atoms, really explains in exquisite detail the observations we make of the universe. So, on one side we have a very precise model of the universe now, that we can test, and every time we test it we keep on getting the same answers. But the fundamental understanding of “What is this dark matter?” and “What is this dark energy?” remain. And so I think that’s the more fundamental question.
[AS] And is that a question that you can look into yourself, or is that over to others?
[BS] Well, we’re trying to test the model as hard as we can. We’re trying to push the model to see if we can break it, to see whether or not Einstein‘s cosmological constant – that’s the explanation of the acceleration – whether or not we can show that that’s wrong. At this point we haven’t been able to do that, but if we were able to show that it was wrong, then I think we would get some insight into what was going on. If we cannot show … If it really does look like Einstein’s cosmological constant, then I think we really need to have some brilliant mind, an Einstein-like figure, come along, and from a theoretical point-of-view, sort of shine some light on what’s going on.
[AS] In a conversation with Saul Perlmutter just about an hour ago, I was asking about the relationship between the theoretical and the experimental physicists. The ball seems to be sort of batted back and forth between the two groups.
[BS] Yes, that’s often the way things go. The theorists come up with a great idea, we try to test it; most of the time we expect we’ll be able to prove it wrong, but occasionally we show it’s right, or it seems to be right, it doesn’t seem to be wrong. And so it’s a great interplay, when you can have theory and observations continually playing off each other. That means you make progress really quickly. If it’s all theory, or it’s all observation, then the progress is much slower.
[AS] And as an experimentalist, what’s the new excitement? Is it technology that’s improving to allow you to look deeper into space?
[BS] Yes, so the technology; these big telescopes, better detectors. Those types of things really enable us to do better and better experiments. So those are a huge driver. But I guess also just good ideas. Astronomy is not like a physics lab. You can’t design an experiment. You need to go through and look up into the heavens, and sort of figure out what the cosmos has given you, and make an experiment out of that. So it’s a very different process. And so there’s always the chance of having a really good idea of how to put together things in space to do the experiment that you want to do.
[AS] That’s a beautiful description of astronomy.
[BS] Yes, it is a very different thing than experimental physics that way.
[AS] And is the environment for it supportive? Is there lots of money around to help you with the new ideas?
[BS] So astronomy is really going through a heyday right now. That is, it’s very well supported compared to what it was 30 or 40 years ago. But I think one thing to remind ourselves is that great ideas don’t need billions of dollars, they need moderate support, and you need to have a lot of people with moderate support to get the good ideas. There are also needs for great big experiments and those are expensive, but they tend not to be so imaginative. They’re sort of the brute force way of solving problems. And so, I’m a very strong believer that you want to try both things, but you want to make sure you keep a bunch of smaller groups with innovative ideas, at the same time as maybe a couple of brute force big experiments.
[AS] Do you think the award of a Nobel Prize to the field will help promote … will help encourage youngsters to join it?
[BS] I certainly hope so. I hope that it will remind people of how exciting astronomy is, and how trying to understand the universe is something that really helps us understand our place in the universe. And it’s certainly my hope that children in Australia but also around the world will go through and say “Ah, I’d kind of like to figure out how to do that myself”. So yes, that is one of my big hopes.
[AS] Well it’s a wonderfully compelling story. And when you come to Stockholm in December to receive your Nobel Prize, we happily have the chance to talk more about it.
[BS] Yes, that would be great.
[AS] For now I wish you luck in finding some dinner! [Laughs]
[BS] Yes, I think at this point I’m just going to go to bed. [Laughs]
[AS] Okay. [Laughs] Well, sleep well and good luck with the next few days. Thank you so much for calling.
[BS] Okay, cheers. Thank you so much.
[AS] Thank you. Bye bye.
[BS] Yes, goodnight.
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