Adam G. Riess: Life

Posted on 2012/07/10


We have all stared at the sky. The ancient Greeks did it for more practical reasons such as navigation and irrigation. Others, like myself, gaze at the stars to cope with the misery caused by the evil ex-girlfriend or to contemplate the meaning of life when drunk. Astrophysicists do it for a living. By definition, astrophysics is the study of physics in the universe: galaxies, planets, stars, and other celestial objects.

Professor Riess and Me

Adam Riess is an astrophysicist at Johns Hopkins University and the Space and Telescope Science Institution. Born in DC. Raised in Jersey. One of three children of a Naval engineer and a clinical psychologist. Obviously, he was more than alright in high school as he went to MIT, where he joined Phi Delta Theta. He then earned a Ph.D in astrophysics at Harvard. MIT and Harvard weren’t amazing enough for him so he went to UC Berkeley as a Miller Fellow, a program for the Jimmy Neutrons of our world (check out here, he is one of the people under notable Fellows). MIT, Harvard, and UC Berkeley– Sounds like the expectations of asian parents. Sorry mother, father.

Anyway, scientists realized they could answer questions such as how old, how big, and what the heck is going to happen to the universe by figuring out the expansion rate of the universe. For instance, because we know the expansion rate of age (every year we become 1 year older) we can correctly calculate that Emma Watson, currently 22 years old, was born in 1990 and will be 42 in 2032 (I’d still marry her). At Harvard, Adam Riess became interested in this topic and begin to practice a method that measures the rate of expansion; he observed supernova, the explosion of stars. Later, he developed the Multi Color Light Curve Shape, an improved method of measuring supernovae.

(confidence interval)
*Click to enlarge*

Prof. Riess’s Notebook (negative value)

In 1994, Adam Riess continued his research at UC Berkeley, where he became part of the High-Z team. Their mission was to “measure the cosmic deceleration of the universe with Type IA Supernovae.” Basically, the team was trying to confirm the common perception at the time that the expansion of universe was decelerating. Professor Riess, the one in charged with analyzing the sample of supernovae observation, did some calculations based on the data and got a negative value (game changer!). A negative number meant something was wrong. It meant that the expansion of the universe was actually accelerating. Confused, he checked his data/calculations and ended up with a 99.73% confidence interval that his answer was indeed correct. Jackpot! After careful discussion with his team, he decided to publish the results.

Team High-Z publication

Cool fact: this result also meant that Albert Einstein’s concept of cosmological constant (which he called his biggest mistake because it was “disproved” at the time) was actually correct. Adam freaking Riess proved Einstein was right. Einstein.

His research featured in the Science magazine as the “breakthrough of the year” in 1998. The accelerating universe theory was a huge(understatement) step towards today’s understanding of the universe, paving ways to concepts such as dark matter and dark energy. The Baltimore Sun reported that Professor Riess’s discovery was “a world-changing result comparable to Galileo’s discovery.” Lets take a time-out. Einstein. Galileo. Albert Einstein. Galileo Galilei. Speechless. On October 4th, 2011 at 5:26 a.m., Professor Adam Riess won the Nobel Prize. Ca-Ching! No, once isn’t enough. Ca-Ching-a-ching!

Go to Google and search for the Nobel Prize winners in Physics. For those of you who are lazy, here. 2011-Saul Perlmutter, Brian P. Schmidt, Adam G. Riess. Scroll down the list. Check out the other names that are on the list.

Time will go on and it will take a couple scroll-downs to see Professor Riess’s name. By that time, he, like all the others who made the list before him, will have cemented himself as a legend in history. This guy currently walks on the campus of Johns Hopkins University. Students often become so focused on studying that they forget about the other aspects of education — learning about achievements of others around us inspire us to succeed. Professor Adam Riess is a walking inspiration.

Receiving the Nobel Prize in Stockholm, Sweden

*After he won the nobel prize, his class enrollment skyrocketed (I was one of the bandwagons who registered). Stars and the Universe, is truly an amazing course that provides both relevant and empirical knowledge such as how people measured the radius of the earth, distance to the sun, geocentric model, etc. Also, to see his complete Nobel Lecture, you can go here and learn about the accelerating universe in more detail. If you want to learn more about the course: Stars and the Universe with Professor Adam Riess, go here.

photo credit: Prolineserver, Adam Riess Stars and the Universe Lecture Slides
by Tae Yoon