Dark Energy and Stories in Science

A few of weeks ago I attended a colloquium by Prof Brian Schmidt (Australian National University) here at the University of Heidelberg. Schmidt worked on one of the two major supernova type 1a projects in the 1990s that led to the finding that the Universe is accelerating, propelled by the mysterious driving force we now call Dark Energy. For this work he and fellow supernova hunters Adam Riess and Saul Perlmutter received the 2011 Nobel Prize for Physics. Nobel Prize winners always attract a good audience, and as the talk was advertised to the physics and astronomy departments, as well as the various research institutes around Heidelberg, the lecture hall was packed to the rafters.

It was a great talk with an excellent introduction to cosmology and dark energy for the non-cosmologists in the room. Then came the history of the supernova 1a research that led up to their now famous but unexpected discovery. It has all the ingredients for an entertaining and inspirational story: good guys and bad guys, competition at the telescopes, colourful characters, a bit of suspense, and a rather happy ending in Stockholm.

It reminded me of hearing for the first time about the life and work of some of the great scientists of the past – Newton, Galileo, Herschel, Hubble, Einstein, Bohr, Schrödinger… The science was cool, but it was the stories of personalities, rivalries, friendships, collaborations and conferences that got me hooked.

And Schmidt’s talk got me thinking: in 20 years’ time, what do I want my story to be? That may sound like I’m having a existential moment, but the further I go in my career the more I realise that creating a narrative to your work is incredibly important in science. Often research feels like chipping away at a dozen little problems  – a dataset here, a prototype there – that may or may not be related to the same questions.

To get the big jobs and the funding you have to be able to tie all those avenues together into a coherent plot, with yourself as the inevitable protagonist who saves the world, circa 2025. That takes intelligence and hard work, but also imagination and a bit of ego.

Perhaps the hardest thing about it is that your story is not just your own. As with everything in life, you don’t have perfect control. Funding climates change, people move, projects fail…. And who knows, maybe you’ll end up with a life outside of the office too one day? Even the perfect 10-year plan needs a rewrite every few years. So: intelligence, hard work, imagination, ego, lots of rewrites – and perhaps a live-in housekeeper. Easy right?



Great Day for Cosmology

Exciting times for cosmology. It’s Nobel Prize week again, and in the first bit of good news for the day, the Physics Nobel was awarded to Saul Perlmutter, Adam Riess and Brian Schmidt. These three scientists were leaders in the studies of type Ia supernovae that led to the discovery of dark energy in 1998 [here’s a primer on the science by Schmidt] – the mysterious phenomenon that causes the Universe to expand at a faster rate than we had previously thought.

Truly groundbreaking new results don’t happen very often in science – in fact, trying to think of those that are is quite a fun exercise. Of the last few decades, the discovery of dark energy from observations of distant supernovae is by far the most prominent groundbreaker I can ever think of. So it’s really no surprise that they are now receiving one of the highest honours, and it’s much deserved. (Of course so many physicists are deserving of big prizes, and these things are notoriously hard to predict.)

The second bit of good news for cosmologists is that ESA have officially selected the Euclid mission as one of its next medium-sized mission. Scheduled for launch in 2019, Euclid’s main objective is to study the nature of dark energy by measuring shapes and redshifts of a huge number of objects in the Universe over the entire sky. It’s a fascinating mission, both scientifically and technically, that we’re also involved in at MPIA. Great news for everyone involved.

We know so little about dark energy, a huge targeted survey like Euclid is bound to throw up some really intriguing new questions – perhaps even some answers? If you combine that with the fascinating stuff that’s going on in particle physics, faster than light neutrinos and such, it’s safe to say that cosmology is heading towards some really fun times!

[Very little blogging in recent weeks….. I’m having an exceptionally busy time at work at the moment, with proposal deadlines, and instrument deadlines, and the handover of MIRI to NASA on the immediate horizon. My Rule #1 for blogging is that blogging cannot cause me any extra stress – so for now it’s on the backburner. More activity soon!]


Nobel honours technology pioneers

Yesterday the 2009 Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded to three scientists who pioneered some of the key technologies that have helped revolutionise both our lives and the way we do science in the last few decades. One of the laureates, Charles Kao, was honoured for his work on optical fibres, that has helped transform the telecommunications infrastructure we use every day. The others, William Boyle and George Smith, invented the charge coupled device (CCD) – the silicon imaging devices that lie at the core of the digital photography revolution. Congratulations to all three of them!

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