Physics Nobel laureate thought prize was a joke

By AAP and AG staff 5 October 2011
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The Australian-based Nobel laureate thought it was a joke when he got the call about winning the physics prize.

WHEN BRIAN SCHMIDT HEARD he had won the Nobel Prize for Physics he thought it was just a practical joke by some of his graduate students.

He also thought they had done a pretty good job of imitating a Swedish accent. But the late-night phone call, from a Swedish-accented woman, was indeed genuine.

Professor Schmidt, a Canberra-based astronomer, was told he and US scientists Saul Perlmutter and Adam Reiss would be sharing the Nobel Prize for Physics. The trio won the award for discovering that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate.

Professor Schmidt, an American who has worked in Australia since 1995 and is an Australian citizen, preferred to share the honour around when he spoke to reporters at Parliament House, in Canberra, on Wednesday.

“We think of Nobel prizes as being a personal achievement, but really it’s a celebration, I think, of astronomy and the science that’s been going on for 100 years,” he said.

Nobel prize for finding the expanding universe

Professor Schmidt and his team tracked how the universe had expanded over time. They had expected that gravity would slow down the growth of the universe.

“What we found was the opposite – the universe was speeding up. It was being pushed, which means that gravity is working differently than we expected.”

Professor Schmidt said the teams’ finding came from one of the greatest scientists of all time – Albert Einstein – who said if the universe was full of energy, gravity would push rather than pull.

“So it would seem that by discovering an accelerating universe, our team actually discovered 75 per cent of the universe as this new magical stuff we call dark energy,” he said.

Nobel prize brings attention to science

The Australian National University academic said he wanted the award to bring greater attention to science.

“I do hope it will allow us to advance science in Australia and serve as an inspiration for budding young scientists to say ‘Geez, maybe I could do that.'”

He plans to put the prize money to “some sort of public good” after consulting members of his team. Professor Schmidt still planned to teach his third-year cosmology students later on Wednesday.

Prime Minister Julia Gillard said the award would make Australians proud of their researchers.

With only 0.3 per cent of the world’s population, Australia produced three per cent of its knowledge. “As this recognition shows, a lot of that is absolutely world-class,” the Prime Minister said.

Australian Nobel prize recipients

William Bragg and Lawrence Bragg
Physics, 1915
William Bragg and his son Lawrence Bragg were jointly awarded the prize in physics in 1915 for “their services in the analysis of crystal structure by means of X-rays.”

Howard Florey
Medicine, 1945
Sir Howard Walter Florey was awarded the prize in physiology or medicine in 1945 for “the discovery of penicillin and its curative effect in various infectious diseases.”

Sir Frank MacFarlane Burnet
Medicine, 1960
Sir Frank MacFarlane Burnet was awarded the prize in physiology or medicine in 1960 for “discovery of acquired immunological tolerance.”

Sir John Carew Eccles
Medicine, 1963
Sir John Carew Eccles was awarded the prize in physiology or medicine in 1963 for “discoveries concerning the ionic mechanisms involved in excitation and inhibition in the peripheral and central portions of the nerve cell membrane.”

Patrick White
Literature, 1973
Patrick White was awarded the prize in literature in 1973 for “an epic and psychological narrative art which has introduced a new continent into literature.”

Sir John Warcup Cornforth
Chemistry, 1975
Sir John Warcup Cornforth awarded the prize in chemistry in 1975 for “his work on the stereochemistry of enzyme-catalysed reactions.”

Professor Peter Doherty
Medicine, 1996
Professor Peter Doherty was awarded the prize in physiology or medicine in 1996 “for discoveries concerning the specificity of the cell mediated immune defence.”

Professor Barry Marshall and Dr Robin Warren
Medicine, 2005
Professor Barry Marshall and Dr Robin Warren were jointly awarded the prize in physiology or medicine in 2005 for “the discovery of the bacterium Helicobacter pylori and its role in gastritis and peptic ulcer disease.”