The discovery that earned Adam Riess the Nobel Prize came at another momentous time for the Johns Hopkins physicist.
Riess recalled Tuesday that the surprising finding that the expansion of the universe was accelerating instead of slowing occurred as he was about to get married to his wife, Nancy. The observations caused flurries of emails between researchers during his wedding weekend in 1998.
One flurry came as Riess and his new wife returned to their Berkeley, Calif., apartment from the wedding to prepare for their honeymoon.
"And I get right behind the computer to respond to this set of email to tell people why I thought the evidence was good enough and she looks up and goes `Adam, serioiusly? On our honeymoon?' And I said `This one's really important,'" Riess said Tuesday, drawing laughter from his colleagues as his wife looked on.
"And she rolled her eyes like `Oh, I'm going to get to hear this for 20 years' And I was like `I mean it,' and that actually was a critical email at that time."
Riess was one of three scientists awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics for the discovery that has led to research into dark energy, an enigmatic force believed to be responsible for the accelerating expansion.
The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences awarded the prize to Riess, an astronomy and physics professor at the university, fellow American Saul Perlmutter and U.S.-Australian citizen Brian Schmidt. Perlmutter heads the Supernova Cosmology Project at the University of California, Berkeley. Schmidt is the head of the High-z Supernova Search Team at the Australian National University in Weston Creek, Australia.
Riess and Schmidt worked on one of two competing research teams in the 1990s and Perlmutter on the other. The teams analyzed exploding stars known as supernovas, selecting a certain type of a known brightness to determine their distance from Earth. Instead of finding the expansion of the universe was slowing, as expected, they were surprised to find they were racing away from each other at increasing speed.
Riess, who was at the University of California at Berkeley at the time, said in a conference call earlier Tuesday that he and other researchers initially thought the findings must have been wrong. But, he said, they couldn't find an error.
When asked about the recent announcement that scientists in Europe had found neutrinos traveling faster than the speed of light, which also runs against current thinking, he cautioned against dismissing unusual results.
"As a lot of my colleagues say when they hear about a strange result, they go `Oh, that's wrong' and usually `How do you know?' then `Well, most things that are weird turn out to be wrong'. And that's true but you don't want to completely close your ears and eyes to seeing weird things because a lot of the most interesting things we see at some point were the weird things," Riess said.
Riess is the second Johns Hopkins scientist to win a Nobel Prize recently. Carol Greider shared the 2009 prize in medicine for her work helping solving the mystery of how chromosomes protect themselves from degrading when cells divide.