3 Astronomers Win Nobel Physics Prize

Oct 4, 2011
Originally published on October 4, 2011 7:10 am
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DAVID GREENE, Host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News I'm David Greene.

LYNN NEARY, Host:

Good morning, Richard. Good to have you with us.

RICHARD HARRIS: Good morning.

NEARY: That sounds so fascinating. Tell us something about these astronomers who won the price today.

HARRIS: And they independently came to the same rather remarkable conclusion, which is that the universe is not only expanding - which people had been measuring actually since the 1920s - but the expansion is actually speeding up.

NEARY: Now, how do they figure that out and what exactly does that mean?

HARRIS: Now until these teams made this discovery, we had a reasonably tidy view of the universe. It started about 13 billion years ago. You remember the Big Bang? Well, you don't personally remember it. But...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: But it turns out it wasn't just expanding out, just sort of coasting out. It's speeding up. It's moving away faster and faster and faster.

NEARY: Well, what's causing that? What's causing that acceleration?

HARRIS: Well, you can get the next Nobel Prize if a few can answer that question, actually.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: But what's causing that acceleration is still hotly debated. One major idea is that empty space isn't actually completely empty. It's filled with some serious energy which has been nicknamed dark energy. And that energy is somehow working against gravity to push the universe apart faster and faster.

NEARY: Oh, sounds kind of scary, actually.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

NEARY: But this discovery, they published this discovery about supernovas back in 1998. So, at that time, did people understand, did they realize it was a really big deal?

HARRIS: It's sort of equivalent in some ways to discovering this weird microwave hum that was discovered many years ago in the universe, which was the major clue that actually a Big Bang had occurred. Or even the earlier discovery from the 1920s that the universe is expanding.

NEARY: Well, Richard, I want to assure you I'm never going to get the Nobel Prize in physics. But thanks for being with us this morning.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: My pleasure.

NEARY: NPR's Richard Harris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.