wpostServer: http://css.washingtonpost.com/wpost

The Post Most: Local

The Buzz
Get Updates:  Twitter  |   Facebook  |  RSS Feeds RSS Feed
Posted at 02:32 PM ET, 10/05/2011

Nobel prize in physics winner Adam Riess explains what ‘dark energy’ means for the average American


Adam Riess in his office at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. (Gail Burton - MacArthur Foundation)
There is no doubt that the work of Nobel Prize winners is impressive, inspiring and, more often than not, very cool. But sometimes it’s hard to imagine what the achievements mean outside of their respective fields.

For example, “dark energy” is a mysterious phenomenon that local astrophysicist Adam Riess and two other scientists discovered is causing the expansion of the universe to speed up.

The discovery, which was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics Tuesday, is a huge deal in the physics world, contradicting the long-held assumption that the expansion of the universe is slowing down. But can we count on it to impact our lives beyond serving as fodder for science fiction writers?

Riess, a Baltimore resident and astronomy professor at Johns Hopkins University, says yes — but it’s too soon to tell exactly how.

“One of the challenges for those of us doing [basic science research] is that it is often very difficult for us to explain what might come of it down the line. When people worked on quantum mechanics, they couldn’t say — at the time — that it would lead to semi-conductors and lasers, but it did,” Riess wrote in an e-mail.

“When we do this kind of research, we often feel that big things — real revolutions in understanding — might come of this,” he said, noting that fundamental discoveries led to new technology like nuclear power.

“But at the time the basic science was being done, no one could have predicted that.”

Here are a few past winners whose award-winning accomplishments have made their marks on our day-to-day lives:

In vitro fertilization: Robert G. Edwards (2010) won the physiology/medicine award for developing the fertility treatment.

HPV vaccine: Harald zur Hausen (2008) was awarded the prize in physiology/medicine for discovering that human papilloma viruses cause cervical cancer, leading to the development of an HPV vaccine.

Digital cameras: William S. Boyle and George E. Smith (2009) won the Nobel Prize in physics for inventing the CCD image sensor, which powers many of today’s digital cameras and camcorders.

Oprah’s Book Club: Toni Morrison (1993), Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1982), Herta Muller (2009) and Pearl Buck (1938) are among the winners of the Nobel Prize in literature who graced Oprah’s popular reading list.

By  |  02:32 PM ET, 10/05/2011

 
Read what others are saying
     

    © 2011 The Washington Post Company