The discovery that the universe is expanding at an accelerating pace, for which Brian Schmidt, Adam Reiss and Saul Perlmutter have received the 2011 Nobel Prize for physics, suggests the cosmos could be headed for a colder, bleaker future, nearly devoid of light.
In 1998, the three presented findings that overturned the conventional idea that the expansion was slowing 13.7 billion years after the big bang.
Their discovery raised a question: What is pushing the universe apart? Scientists have labeled it "dark energy," but nobody knows what it is.
It's "an enigma, perhaps the greatest in physics today," the Nobel committee said.
Working in two teams, they measured the universe's expansion by analyzing light from dozens of exploding stars called supernovas. They found the light was weaker than expected, signaling that the expansion of the universe was accelerating.
It was "one of the truly great discoveries in the history of science, and one whose implications are not fully understood," said Paul Steinhardt, a physics professor at Princeton University.
One consequence of the finding is that in a trillion years, galaxies will be spread apart from each other by more than the current size of the universe, he said. And the ever-greater expansion rate means the light from one galaxy will no longer be visible from another as it is today, he said.
The rapid expansion also implies that the universe will get increasingly colder as matter spreads across ever-vaster distances in space, said Lars Bergstrom, secretary of the Nobel physics committee.
The committee, citing the Robert Frost poem that pondered the world ending in fire or ice, suggested that "if the expansion will continue to speed up, the universe will end in ice."
But Robert Kirshner, a Harvard astronomer who was part of the team that included his former students Schmidt and Riess, said scientists don't know enough about dark energy to predict what will happen to the universe hundreds of billions of years from now.
One possibility is that the expansion will continue to speed up so much that not only will galaxies fly apart from each other, but "stuff will really rip apart," even planets and atoms, he said. That's called the "big rip," "and I hope that's not our fate."
On the other hand, Kirshner said, the expansion could halt and go into reverse, so the universe collapses back into itself, a fate sometimes called the "big crunch."
Brian Schmidt, co-winner of this year's Nobel Prize in physics, spent his high school years in Anchorage.
Now an astrophysicist at the Australian National University in Weston Creek, Australia, the former Alaskan will share the prize with Saul Perlmutter of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Adam Riess of Johns Hopkins University.
Schmidt was born in Montana and came to Alaska with his parents in 1981. He attended Bartlett High School, where he was active in several groups, including the running team, Honor Society, cross country ski team, symphonic band (he played horn), drama and student government (treasurer of the sophomore class in 1982).
"I had good teachers as I moved into my high school years in Alaska," he said in a 2001 interview with Marian Heard for the Australian Academy of Science. "They pushed me; I had to really work hard to impress them. They didn't just let me think that doing very well was good enough. It was always, 'How much better can you do?' They were very good that way."
Several teachers recalled Schmidt vividly. His physics teacher at Bartlett, Mike McVee, described him as "one of the best students in class."
"He was a great kid," said Wayne Mergler, who had Schmidt in an advanced placement English class. "Delightful, charming, funny, smart. I wouldn't say quiet."
Mergler cast him in a lead role in the school's production of Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors."
Peter Tryon, now the technology coordinator at South Anchorage High School, knew him both as a geometry teacher and his cross country ski coach. "He was a real nice kid and worked real hard."
He was a "solid, good skiier, but not on the A team," Tryon said -- which led to an anecdote.
Tryon recalled one time when members of the A team were attending the junior national competition and the rest of the team stayed behind. "I was giving the team a hard time about their lack of motivation. I said, 'Is this the Bartlett ski club, or the Bartlett Fun-in-the-Sun Club?' The next day they all came to practice wearing shorts and Hawaiian shirts and set up a picnic on the trail. Brian went off a little jump wearing shorts and fell on corn snow and got a significant road rash. The next day I went by his calculus class and saw him standing up in the back of the class -- because he wasn't ready to sit down."
Tryon corresponded with Schmidt when the student went away to college at the University of Arizona and kept tabs on his progress over the years. Schmidt earned his doctorate at Harvard University. There he met and married his wife, Jennie, an economist from Australia, where he moved and has lived since. They have two sons, Kieran and Adrian.
Schmidt was the only child of Dana Schmidt, a fish biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and Donna Schmidt, the head of classified advertising at the Daily News in the early 1980s. In 1985, they relocated to Kodiak then Kenai. Leaving Alaska after Dana's retirement in 1998, they moved to Castlegar, British Columbia, where Dana still lives. Donna died in 2009.
Schmidt's key discoveries have indicated that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate of speed. The evidence he's helped collect and interpret has led to serious reconsideration of prior scientific assumptions and earned him several major awards in his field.
"There were rumors a couple of years ago that he was nominated for the Nobel Prize," said Tryon. "I remember at the time bragging about it. But I didn't think it would go any further than that."
Schmidt recalled that, in high school, he had been mainly interested in meteorology. But, he said, "I did do a little bit of astronomy, going out to look at comets and the northern lights in Alaska."
McVee thought Schmidt's success was not surprising, but he shied away from taking any credit for it. "He was extremely talented, a hard-working student, an all-around student-athlete. I always thought he would do good no matter who he had teaching him."
Reach Mike Dunham at email@example.com or 257-4332.
By MIKE DUNHAM
Anchorage Daily News
Alaska Dispatch Publishing