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University professor receives 2015 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics

| Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Notre Dame physics professor Peter Garnavich received the 2015 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics on Nov. 9, for his work with the High-Z Supernova Search Team. The scientists and entrepreneurs that make up the Breakthrough Prize board awarded High-Z and another competing team of cosmological researchers for publishing paradigm-shifting evidence regarding the expansion of the universe.

Garnavich said he was surprised to discover that the third iteration of the Breakthrough Prize would be awarded to High-Z.

“I was reading the New York Times the morning after the prize was announced and I saw our team members and the competing team leader in their pictures and I said, ‘Oh, they’ve won another big award,'” Garnavich said. “Then I saw that physics received $3 million. It was only at the end of the article that I realized the entire team had also been named and would be receiving a share [of the prize].”

Garnavich said when his team’s leaders, Brian P. Schmidt and Adam Riess, received the 2011 Nobel Prize for Physics for High-Z’s discovery the whole team enjoyed several days of celebration in Sweden. Garnavich said he admired the Swedes’ celebration of science and thought the Breakthrough Awards are an attempt to bring the spirit of celebrating science to the United States.

The Breakthrough Prize was awarded to High-Z for publishing their research about stars in 1998, Garnavich said. The two competing teams, High-Z and the Supernova Cosmology Project, sought to analyze the expansion of the universe by collecting data on massive star explosions known as supernovae. Garnavich said his team used high-powered telescopes in places such as Arizona, Chile and in the Hubble Space Telescope to gather data on a category of supernovae with a uniform brightness known as “standard candles.”

“Just like if you look at a street light and you would know that it is 300 watts, or something like that, you would know one that is fainter is actually further away,” he said. “So we use the same technique with these supernovae, if we know what their luminosity actually is. By the late ’80s to early ’90s it became clear that this particular type of supernova was a really excellent distance indicator.”

Garnavich said when the two research teams compiled the necessary data from the “standard candle” supernovae for analysis in 1997, they theorized that it would be a measure of the degree of deceleration in the universe’s expansion.

“We were finding — and scratching our heads — that we don’t see a deceleration, we actually see an acceleration,” Garnavich said. “The motion of the universe would be like if I threw this pen up in the air and it zoomed through the roof off into space. That would be quite surprising, and that was the level of surprise we had.”

This mysterious accelerating force is referred to as “dark energy” and its identity is one of the major unanswered questions in physics, he said. Garnavich said High-Z’s discovery of the phenomenon has raised far more questions than they have answered.

“It gets this general name ‘dark energy’ because it might not even be energy, it might even be extra dimensions,” Garnavich said. “It is a huge unknown, and we’re talking about three quarters of the universe and we have no idea what it is.”

Garnavich said he estimates that science cannot explain 97 percent of the universe. Regardless, he said he remains undaunted by the infinite mysteries physics has yet to explain.

“It keeps us in business.”

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