Physics Nobel rewards human achievement

Ryan Young Fellow, Competitive Enterprise Institute
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The 2011 Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded this morning. The winners are Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt, and Adam Reiss. They revolutionized astronomy in 1998 by finding out that the universe is not just growing, but growing at an accelerating rate. Their discovery has influenced the entire discipline. Everything from the search for dark matter, to theoretical multiverses, to string theory and M-theory, rests at least in part on what today’s laureates discovered.

Permutter, Schmidt, and Reiss might have radically changed the way we view the universe. But they are part of a very long tradition. Astronomy has always advanced in fits and starts; theirs is only the latest. After a millenium of Ptolemaic stagnation, Nicolaus Copernicus redefined man’s understanding of his place in the universe. We are not the center of the universe, which came as a body blow to mankind’s ego. The sun is the center, according to Copernicus. His follower Galileo Galilei would nearly pay with his life for insulting man’s pride. But Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler would refine his idea, and it was eventually accepted by non-astronomers.

Einstein’s annus mirabilis of 1905 up-ended Isaac Newton’s theories and made possible an accelerating wave of discoveries that is still happening today. One of the consequences of relativity is that the universe has no center. Neither man, nor sun, nor Milky Way. Post-Einstein man is even smaller than post-Copernicus man.

In 1925, Edwin Hubble showed the world that the universe is more than just the Milky Way. The Andromeda cloud is actually a galaxy too, just like ours. His successors would find billions and billions of galaxies. The space telescope bearing Hubble’s name has found galaxies as far as 13.2 billion light years away. Man’s place in the universe grew smaller still.

Hubble discovered something else in 1929. The universe is expanding. This appeared to confirm the Big Bang theory, which had been floating around for a few years. Fred Hoyle would coin the term “Big Bang” in 1949 and teach it to the masses. But Hubble found the first convincing evidence.

1998 was the most recent watershed year. That’s when Perlmutter, Schmidt, and Reiss, working in two separate teams, found that our giant, centerless, multigalactic universe’s growth is accelerating. Their achievement is chronicled in Mario Livio’s excellent book The Accelerating Universe, and was awarded the world’s most prestigious prize this morning.

One of philosophy’s eternal questions now has an answer. We will die in ice, not fire. Our species won’t be around billions and billions of years from now, when the last star finally disappears from the sky, too far and too faint to be seen. But we know that’s what will happen someday. All this just from looking at distant explosions and measuring their brightness.

If that doesn’t deserve a Nobel, nothing does.

I’ve been saying that Perlmutter, Schmidt, and Reiss have shrunk man’s already tiny position in both space and time. But they — and we — still stand tall. If little old us can look through a metal tube with glass discs stuck in it (or radio telescopes, which rely on light we can’t even see), and infer from dim and ancient supernovae, millions of light years away, that the universe’s expansion is accelerating — well, that’s a very big achievement for such a small species.

And we’re capable of much, much more. Our universe may die in ice in the distant future. But until then, we will live well. Or rather, we will so long as human achievements like Perlmutter, Schmidt, and Reiss’ are encouraged, valued, and rewarded.

Congratulations, gentlemen. You have embodied all that is great about humanity, learning so much from so little. Stand proud, small stature and all.

Ryan Young is a fellow in regulatory studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute.