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2011 Nobel Prize In Physics 119

Posted by Soulskill
from the magnets-how-do-they-work dept.
brindafella writes "Thirteen years ago, two teams of astronomers and physicists independently made the same stark discovery: Not only is the universe expanding like a vast inflating balloon, but its expansion is speeding up. The two teams have now been recognized with the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics. Half of the prize will go to Saul Perlmutter of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the University of California, Berkeley, who led the Supernova Cosmology Project. The other half will be shared by Brian Schmidt of the Australian National University's Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics, who led the High-z Supernova Search Team, and Adam Riess of Johns Hopkins University and the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, Maryland, who worked on High-z. In essence, they proved that Einstein's 'biggest mistake' (the cosmological constant, to create a 'stable universe') was actually a clever theoretical prediction that there was something else happening — dark energy."
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2011 Nobel Prize In Physics

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  • by wisebabo (638845) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @02:23AM (#37608944) Journal

    Not only are the galaxies going to fly apart but our solar system, the planets, our bodies, our cells and ultimately even our atoms (and subatomic particles!). I think only photons or other massless particles will be spared. :(

    I know the Nobel committee said the Universe will end in Ice not Fire but it seems more like a great empty VOID.

    So... is there a way to harness this "dark energy"? Like attaching a rope between two objects (planets?) and let the universe try to pull it apart? Or would the rope have to be massless? Or maybe there is a more direct way of harnessing this energy? (anti-gravity?)

    IAVONAP (I am very obviously not a physicist).

    • Not only are the galaxies going to fly apart but our solar system, the planets, our bodies, our cells and ultimately even our atoms (and subatomic particles!).

      Is this a good time to take out mortgage then?

    • Would it be less depressing to you if all ended in a Big Crunch? Why do we find a static universe pleasing? No birth without death.

      Galaxies don't expand, so two planets wouldn't work as a way to harness dark energy. But the idea is that every cube of space, when you take out all the mass, still has some energy. Perhaps in form of tension or a pressure. So you wouldn't need to go far. But it is incredibly little. Although I should emphasize we don't know what it is yet, so we wouldn't even know how to start

      • by timeOday (582209)

        Would it be less depressing to you if all ended in a Big Crunch? The collapsing universe idea seemed sensible because it implied the universe was in an endless regenerative cycle. If it's just a one-shot deal, why is it happening now, of all times?

      • by lgw (121541)

        Isn't some expansion of the universe implied by relativity?

        Consider: an electron near the edge of the visible universe still influences the electrons in by body to some tiny degree. One would expect the edge of the visible universe to be effectively an event horizon - nothing beyond the edge should be able to affect us here in any way. Yet it that electron "on the edge" is influenced by stuff "past the edge", and then eventually affects us, there is no event horizon, just a light horizon (which isn't real

    • by Darfeld (1147131)

      The whole idea behind "dark energy" is that we don't know what it actually is or where it come from. So my guess is that until we know enough about it to put a better name on it, we won't do anything with it.

      But, don't worry, we have a hell of a lot of time to figure it out.

    • by orange47 (1519059)
      IANAP (I am not a psychiatrist), but it seems to me you worry too much about it.
    • Not depressing, by the time we get there, we will probably have figured out a way to deal with it.

  • Out of curiosity, assuming that CERN in fact broke the light speed barrier, how does that effect things like the dark energy equations, if it effects them at all?

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Until we have some understanding of the (assumed) new physics responsible, I don't think anyone can say.

    • how does that effect things like the dark energy equations, if it effects them at all?

      There are no 'dark energy equations', just standard physics applied to observational data.. Scientists have proved that the universe is expanding and that the expansion of the universe is accelerating based on observational data from a couple of different (you might say 'independent' if you don't try to be too philosophical about it) sources [wikipedia.org]. By running the data through standard physics equations they were able to calculate the magnitude of *an* energy that would be required to support that accelleration. T

    • All particles with positive mass go slower than the speed of light.
      Particles with zero mass go at the speed of light.
      Neutrinos, going faster than c like tachyons [wikipedia.org] have imaginary mass.
      Imaginary mass, plugged into gravitational formula which uses mass squared will give repulsion rather than attraction.
      If the universe is filled with these neutrinos, it would explain the repulsive force we label as dark energy.

      This is derived from a previous comment [slashdot.org] I made, corrected by a reply [slashdot.org].

      • Gravitaiton doesn't use mass squared, it uses the product of two different masses (at least Newtonian gravitation, GR doesn't directly use mass at all, only energy and momentum). So naively inserting an imaginary mass into Newton's gravitational force for both particles will indeed give repulsion (i.e. two imaginary masses would repulse each other). However putting in one imaginary and one real mass (to find out how tachyons interact with an ordinary mass) would give an imaginary force. I have no idea what

      • by Sockatume (732728)

        Imaginary mass, plugged into gravitational formula which uses mass squared will give repulsion rather than attraction.

        If you're describing two imaginary masses. If you're describing an imaginary mass interacting with a real mass, you have an imaginary gravitational force. Given that all interactions between dark matter and normal matter would be of this nature, that's kind of a defect in your idea.

  • The human population grows exponentially, which the universe apparently may do too. If we will build spacecrafts capable of intergalactic traveling, will we fit, eventually?

    If space does not accelerate fast enough, probably not.

    • by Anonymous Coward

      The human population does not grow exponentially. The closest approximation for the last century is quadratic (the first derivative is linear).

      • by G3ckoG33k (647276)

        Using (from Wikipedia)

        1950 2519
        1955 2756
        1960 2982
        1965 3335
        1970 3692
        1975 4068
        1980 4435
        1985 4831
        1990 5263
        1995 5674
        2000 6070
        2005 6454
        2008 6707

        in LibreOffice I get

        2574.67 exp(0.017222 x)

        with R2 at 0.9945

        What am i missing (except that changes in social behavious will/may influence those numbers)?

        • Using (from Wikipedia)

          in LibreOffice I get

          2574.67 exp(0.017222 x)

          with R2 at 0.9945

          What am i missing (except that changes in social behavious will/may influence those numbers)?

          That a polynomial of 2nd degree gives R^2=0.999, so a better fit. I mean look at the fitted curves, the exponential is way off.

  • Dark energy (Score:4, Insightful)

    by lazykoala (2477144) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @02:34AM (#37608998)
    Dark energy is the name of a problem, not a solution. It's embarrassing that 75% of the universe is made up of we-have-no-idea-what.
    • Re:Dark energy (Score:5, Insightful)

      by buchner.johannes (1139593) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @04:06AM (#37609414) Homepage Journal

      Dark energy is the name of a problem, not a solution. It's embarrassing that 75% of the universe is made up of we-have-no-idea-what.

      No, it is exciting, and it's astonishing that we know this fact.

    • by Nukedoom (1776114)

      I think it's a humbling experience to not know-- it's nothing to be embarrassed about.

    • by Shag (3737)

      This is just the first step. "Oh, hey, something must exist."

      Step two is figuring out what that something is, and/or how it works. That's what we're* working on now.

      Then comes application of that knowledge.

      Einstein's Field Equations back around the first World War might have seemed awfully cryptic, but they led to quantum physics, which led to semiconductors, which led to Slashdot. (Okay, I may have skipped a step or two.)

      So maybe in another 100 years, this dark energy stuff will actually lead to somethi

      • by bjorniac (836863)

        Actually, EFE have nothing to do with quantum physics - they're purely classical. Schrodinger/Heisenberg is where you want to really look for quantum physics (or the photoelectric effect, also an Einstein thing but nothing to do with the field equations).

        That's not to say that EFE aren't awesome - they gave us the tools we needed for GPS etc, and tons of insight into cosmology, but technologically speaking we wouldn't be far behind if we still had a Minkowski space + Quantum Field Theory version of physics

    • by atisss (1661313)
      Obligatory http://wulffmorgenthaler.com/strip/2011/10/05 [wulffmorgenthaler.com]
    • We should just call what we have Ptolemaic Cosmology. We have no idea what the heck is going on. What we know is good enough for the technology we have. Dark matter and dark energy are just our versions of the epicycles. Convent for expressing what we see but no basis in reality.

      • by Bootsy Collins (549938) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @07:40AM (#37610510)

        Dark matter and dark energy are just our versions of the epicycles. Convent for expressing what we see but no basis in reality.

        You can only be confident about something like that if you're incredibly impatient, and don't know much about how hard this stuff is. The earliest observational evidence of dark matter came from the 1930s, when Fritz Zwicky measured the line-of-sight velocities of galaxies in clusters and realized that there had to be more mass in clusters than could be attributed to the galaxies alone, or there wouldn't be enough gravity to keep them together as a cluster. It was another 30+ years later that we observed with X-ray telescopes a decent-sized chunk of that missing mass in clusters, in the form of a hot intracluster plasma at temperatures of tens of millions of degrees that fills the space between galaxies in clusters and, in rich clusters of galaxies, contributes several times more mass to the cluster than the galaxies within it. Thirty-plus years, for something that's fairly easy to see once you have the technology that can look there (X-ray telescopes); it took us a while to get it.

        All our cosmological theories may turn out to be complete crap. But it's absurd to say so now on the basis of complaints like 'we haven't solved the dark matter problem yet' or 'we can't explain a nonzero vacuum energy.' There was a fair amount of time between Oersted and Maxwell, as well. In the meantime, the most plausible theories will get pursued, and we'll see.

        • by Anonymous Coward

          It's not that we haven't solved the dark matter problem. It is that we speak of an imaginary construct erected to save an accepted model as if that imaginary construct is real. Saying that we really don't know what is going on is not impatience or fundamental lack of awareness of what scientific knowledge is. It is recognition that the Big Bang explanation has some fundamental challenges and we have to turn to imaginary matter and imaginary energy to continue to cling on. Epicycles actually predicted the ap

      • by Sockatume (732728)

        What we know is good enough for the technology we have.

        I'd quite like for us to develop some kind of technology we don't already have.

    • by epine (68316)

      Dark energy is the name of a problem, not a solution. It's embarrassing that 75% of the universe is made up of we-have-no-idea-what.

      Dark energy is the anonymous coward of particle physics. If it would sign up for a proper account, it would be far easier to study. It's possible that we already understand dark energy completely: a term that shows up in a few things we already measure, with no additional personality to be further described.

      Is it not possible there could be such a physics: lurker particles th

    • by epine (68316)

      Perhaps dark energy is mediated by embrasons. If there was a god, and he was anything like me, the universe would surely have such a particle.

    • I would not say that it is embarrassing.

      It sure kicks the shit out of intellectual hubris. But that is a good thing.

    • by pclminion (145572)

      It's embarrassing that 75% of the universe is made up of we-have-no-idea-what.

      You imply we know what the other 25% is made of. What's an electron made of?

  • I get that this is the Nobel prize - but these people appear to have already accomplished something. Indeed, the noteworthy achievement for which they are receiving the prize is over a decade in the past. I thought the Nobel prize was awarded to encourage responsible action? It's a "call to action", not a fuddy duddy pat on the back from the good-old-boys club. Look at the photo at the linked article - three white males. By the way, what the hell is up with "dividing" a Nobel prize like it's some sort
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      You might be thinking of the Peace Prize. The scientific ones are awarded for work which has withstood the tests of time. Without checking, I think that to get a Nobel in physics for work done a mere decade ago is unusually fast.

    • by Guy Harris (3803) <guy@alum.mit.edu> on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @04:01AM (#37609390)

      I get that this is the Nobel prize - but these people appear to have already accomplished something. Indeed, the noteworthy achievement for which they are receiving the prize is over a decade in the past. I thought the Nobel prize was awarded to encourage responsible action?

      As noted, this is the Nobel Prize in Physics, which is to be awarded to "the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics" [thelocal.se]

      Look at the photo at the linked article - three white males.

      OK, fine. Yeah, the physics prize has mostly gone to white males, but there's C. V. Raman [wikipedia.org] (if "Indian" counts as "non-white"), Hideki Yukawa [wikipedia.org], Tsung-Dao Lee [wikipedia.org], Chen Ning Yang [wikipedia.org], Sin-Itiro Tomonaga [wikipedia.org], Leo Esaki [wikipedia.org], Samuel C. C. Ting [wikipedia.org], Abdus Salam (if "Pakistani" counts as "non-white"), Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar [wikipedia.org] (see previous comments), Steven Chu [wikipedia.org], Daniel C. Tsui [wikipedia.org], Masatoshi Koshiba [wikipedia.org], Makoto Kobayashi, Toshihide Maskawa [wikipedia.org], Yoichiro Nambu [wikipedia.org], and Charles K. Kao [wikipedia.org]. Oh, yeah, and Marie Skodowska Curie [wikipedia.org] and Maria Goeppert-Mayer [wikipedia.org].

      By the way, what the hell is up with "dividing" a Nobel prize like it's some sort of peach pie? Half for one white male, while the other two share the other half?

      Not all "most important [discoveries] or [inventions] within the field of physics" - or any of the other fields for which there are Nobel prizes - can be uniquely credited to one individual. (And sometimes it's split between Asians, or between an Asian and a white guy, or.... :-))

      Who comes up with this stuff?

      The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences [nobelprize.org]. (Hint: you may think that as a random geek with a /. account and an opinion, you're smarter than they all are. That is not necessarily the case. HTH.)

      • by rgbatduke (1231380) <rgb.phy@duke@edu> on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @07:32AM (#37610464) Homepage
        The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences [nobelprize.org]. (Hint: you may think that as a random geek with a /. account and an opinion, you're smarter than they all are. That is not necessarily the case. HTH.)

        OTOH, it might be. As my Ph.D. advisor (Larry Biedenharn, a Nobel wannabe) used to ask me -- "How do you think they choose who gets the award?" Generally I think they do a pretty good job -- they have the same problem as the Oscar committee, they have to reward people for some specific piece of work but some people up are really being proposed (and perhaps occasionally awarded) for a lifetime of many submarginal contributions, so they'll sometimes grant a prize that at first glance seems "odd". But /. readers are a pretty well informed bunch (with a few notable exceptions, don't make me come down there and spank you) and given time to debate to a consensus would probably do just as well.

        Your remarks concerning color- and gender- blindness of the committee are dead on the money; the Nobel prize goes to the physics far more than the person, and we absolutely revere physicists of any color or gender who make "great" contributions. In physics especially people just don't really give a damn; brilliance is where you find it. If there is a fault leading to a disparity in the distribution of prizes in physics, it is in the general educational and social system that feeds graduate research programs and beyond -- in the US (and probably Europe) females and certain minorities are still underrepresented in the system in spite of decades (at this point) of active recruiting. However, this really is getting better, and I'd predict that in two more decades will be a non-issue. I've seen a huge shift in the time I've been teaching physics, from having basically one black physics major every decade (first decade) to having black majors every year, including black students who top out the class with the best overall score (in damn difficult classes!). In another decade those students will come online and we'll see prizes headed that way.

        Attracting female majors is still behind -- we're still a long way from 50% in the intro-majors classes I've been teaching, more like 20-25% in a good year -- but the ones we're getting are great, I've had women nailing the top THREE slots in intro physics classes total scorewise, and again I think that they are "sticking" and going on to academic careers that will eventually lead to more prizes. Our department has certainly been actively recruiting female and nonwhite faculty -- our current department chair is both female and not white, although we are probably still a decade plus away from parity due to the fact that no matter what it takes time to roll over tenured physics positions and race/gender is only ONE consideration in hiring/recruiting, secondary to competence and ability to fund research and teach and all that.

        I won't say that there are no bastions of white maleness out there in physics-land, but I would say that they are a rapidly diminishing population, and that the real place changes need to take place (and are taking place) is elementary school and high school. Physics requires serious math, and there has been an enormous female anti-math social bias entrenched across the teen years forever that is just recently starting to thaw. Math majoring has gotten to where it is very nearly general balanced (still not balanced at the faculty level, though -- the same decadal lag) and I think physics is not far behind as it is now "cool" and socially "feminine" for women to be good at math in high school. I may be dead before things are really level, but my kids won't be. rgb
    • by TESTNOK (2476330)
      Well, historically, the Nobel prize was instituted by Alfred Nobel to encourage young scientists, as far as I know. And yes, his intention was to made work possible that would not be related to weapons production etc, given his own involvement in developing dynamite - again, this is what I always understood. So that would fall under "responsible action." Over the years, the average age of Nobel Laureates has certainly gone up (I think the youngest ever was 25 years old, in 1915), so that nowadays the prize
      • by Coren22 (1625475)

        I can't seem to find it there, and maybe you know, or don't know, but how much is the money award? Is it a bit of cash, or quite a bit of cash? A new car, or a new mansion?

        • by TESTNOK (2476330)
          Sorry, Coren22, for my somewhat general link; it does take a bit of clicking around.

          Amounts are here [nobelprize.org]. For 2011, the full Prize amount is 10.000.000,00 SEK (Swedish Kronor); this amounts (hahah, pun intended) to Eur 1.246.401,02 or USD 1.541.050,22. I'm sure a small mansion is a possibility.

          Other facts, such as the age of winners over the years, are here [nobelprize.org].
    • by Sockatume (732728)

      I get that this is the Nobel prize

      "...I'm just not clear on what the Nobel Prize actually is."

      • by arisvega (1414195)

        "...I'm just not clear on what the Nobel Prize actually is."

        More importantly, how do you cut it in half? A clean laser cut would be an obvious choice, and then you get half a statue or smth. How cool would that be?

  • We call it the "Big Bang", but it's not really analogous to a conventional explosion like that. It's not as if the outer perimeter of space is where all the expansion is happening - space itself is expanding. Points in space - stars, planets, galaxies - are moving apart as space expands between them.

    • by Rockoon (1252108)
      ..hence why (the surface of) a balloon is a good analogy.
    • A balloon is actually one of the best analogies anyone's been able to come up with, it just gets explained badly. A balloon is a great analogy because the (2D) *surface* of the balloon acts the same way as the (3D) universe does. Expansion with no centre and everything moving away from everything else. That's why the balloon analogy is used so often and then mangled and misunderstood.

    • I'm probably showing my ignorance, but how do we know that the observable universe is the whole universe? What if the Big Bang, was just one of a very large number of 'local' bangs. If these other universes were far enough away, say a billion billion billion diameters of this universe, would there be any way to detect them?

      If this is a possible scenario it might eliminate the conundrum of how the universe sprang into existence from nothing all those billions (but still a finite number) of years ago. A
      • "how do we know that the observable universe is the whole universe?"

        We don't and it almost certainly isn't; certainly, I doubt many people seriously believe it is.

        "What if the Big Bang, was just one of a very large number of 'local' bangs."

        Something very close to this idea lies at the heart of "chaotic inflation" which is still pretty much the most widely-used version of inflationary theory. It's occasionally described as a "seething foam of spacetime" with little bubbles popping up through quantum fluctuat

        • Not directly. Indirectly, it would depend on the details of the theory that produced them.

          Theories now can produce universes?

          • Given that the entire topic of other "universes" is totally and utterly theoretical, yes. (In a manner of speaking, of course.)

    • by trout007 (975317)

      I like the expanding foam analogy. Like that crap in a can. If teo particles exist in the foam they move away from each other and everything else as the foam expands.

  • by Solandri (704621) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @03:10AM (#37609154)
    Cute quote from from Adam Riess [reuters.com]:

    Riess, who was still in his 20s when the groundbreaking research was published, said he told his daughter, 7, that winning the Nobel prize was "like getting a great big gold sticker on your homework."

    • by Moskit (32486)

      What's the "gold sticker on homework"?
      Is it a local USA (where Riess lives) expression, like "homerun"?

      (no, not troll, trying to understand what's this about)

      • In America when kids do well on something they're rewarded with a token that, while of little monetary worth, is intended to bolster their self esteem. Said child will often show this token off with pride to their parents. One such method is affix a gold-colored star on the front of a homework assignment for a job well done.

        Here Riess is attributing similar affirmation of his work by the broader scientific community, which is of much more worth to him as a scientist than the monetary reward. Also, he is
  • Big bang, supernovae, dynamites, I feel a compulsive obsession in the Nobel club.

  • by Stellian (673475) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @04:15AM (#37609466)

    It seems so often in the scientific world that two teams come to make the same discovery simultaneously. More often than not the next logical step in a field is dictated by the global advancement in that and other fields, and not the individual genius of the author. Many times ideas are ripe for the picking, if you are one of the very smart working on them. Hence the large number of joint discoveries or teams that supplement each other's results despite being in competition.

    Completely off-topic, but I can't stop from making a parallel with the patent world. I expect this manner of scientific advancement to translate to technical creations too. The basis of the patent system is that rewarding the author will stimulate creativity. But one cannot wonder how many of really smart inventions wouldn't have been invented anyway, or indeed have been invented simultaneously by someone else when their time had come.

    In the extreme, it's clear that a system that devotes a large proportion of the resources of society to reward the inventors in one that stimulates creativity. However that stimulus is not without his costs. The large legal ecosystem surrounding the patent system is a high consumer of those resources dedicated to inventors. Businesses have to devote important resources to ensure that are not infringing, instead of simply strive to create the best product possible. The exclusivity period is an economic disturbance, the large license fee an inventor might require for his revolutionary invention might not be earned if the same invention would have been made anyway in a year or two from the original filling date. The public key cryptography algos come to mind.

    Note that I'm talking about smart, revolutionary patents. I think we can agree that the bulk of patents don't fit that category and cost the society more than they bring. Well, I'm upping the ante and question if even the smart patents really cover their costs for society. Because if most of the smart ones would have been discovered anyway in a year or two, maybe we can get rid of the patent system for good. Sure, some smart ones would remain uninvented even after the 20 years period without the stimulus of a financial prize. But I argue they would be few and far between, their opportunity cost much smaller than what we are collectively spending on the patent system.

  • Was reading that 'its expansion is speeding up', but I also read a document from 1972. How can they get a Nobel Prize for old news ? Here is a part of 'Siloism' (first published in Santiago de Chile, 1972). "c) Origin of the Universe. Light converged upon itself and this gave place to the surging of dense energetic and material expressions. This was the stage of the "fall of the light." This provoked the original explosion, and from this centre, radiation and mass of igneous matter expanded at increasing
    • Finally, all bodies will end up transforming their matter into radiant energy and this energy will be converted into light. In addition, from every direction of the curved space this light will convex upon one centre in order to produce a new creative explosion. In synthesis: Light is eternal, it is the origin and the end of the Universe. It is of no interest here to study the processes of densification, nor, inversely, those of increasing vibration of matter, anti-matter, and energy. It suffices to say tha
  • Saul was heard to mutter "for my $supernova ( @supernovae ) { alarm if q($supernova) 0 }"
    • oops, was just being silly anyway, but lost the > due to html and shouldn't override q// ;)
      "for my $supernova ( @supernovae ) { alarm if measure_q($supernova) > 0 }"
  • ...if the universe is expanding, why don't I ever find a parking place?

  • Maybe a /.er can explain what's wrong with my theory on this... If space is a vacuum, then isnt mass just trying to spread itself out into space? Like how a water bottle caves in on itself to fill the void of someone sucking the air out of it? Why do we need Dark energy to explain it?

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