Australian Nobel winner thought prize call was a prank

Reuters News
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Posted: Oct 04, 2011 11:23 PM
Australian Nobel winner thought prize call was a prank

By Rob Taylor

CANBERRA (Reuters) - After 15 years living in far-off Australia, American-born Brian Schmidt thought the phone call informing him he had jointly won the Nobel Prize for Physics was a student prank, coming in the dead of the night from a woman with a thick Swedish accent.

"I'm thinking, 'Jeez my graduate students are getting pretty good with the accent this year', so yeah, it's an interesting experience," the unassuming Australian-American told journalists in his adopted homeland Wednesday.

Schmidt, 44, and U.S. researchers Adam Riess and Saul Perlmutter, were honored by the Nobel jury for their work on exploding stars, or supernovae, which astrophysicists say has changed the world's understanding of the universe's expansion.

Schmidt graduated with a doctorate from Harvard University in 1993. He subsequently moved to Canberra in 1995 with his Australian wife and became an Australian citizen. He said it had been a huge shock to win the prestigious prize.

"I feel like when my first child was born. I'm kind of weak in the knees and a little, you know, I guess a little ... hard to describe, almost speechless at this point," he told national radio.

Schmidt and Reiss, both based at the Australian National University's (ANU) Mount Stromlo Observatory near Canberra, won the prize with Perlmutter for their discovery that the universe is actually blowing apart at an ever-increasing rate.

The realization after more than a decade of research on supernovae turned previous understanding of the universe on its head, opening up important new fields in the study of time and mysterious dark energy thought to make up much of the cosmos.

But Schmidt said the discovery would mean little immediate change, with his first day as a Nobel laureate to be spent teaching a cosmology class to students at the ANU, one of Australia's most prestigious universities.

He and his team are building on their work through the construction at Mount Stromlo of a SkyMapper telescope to produce a digital star chart of the southern hemisphere sky that will allow detailed comparisons of movement.

Schmidt, who also grows grapes on a farm just outside the forested Australian capital, rated his Nobel alongside his other great life quest to produce a perfect Pinot Noir wine.

"I would say that the grape growing is actually harder than the astrophysics," he said.

(Editing by Idayu Suparto)