On receiving the late night call from Stockholm of his Nobel win, astrophysicist Brian Schmidt initial thought was some graduate student was playing a prank on him.
Schmidt stated, “I'm thinking, 'Geez my graduate students are getting pretty good with the accent this year', so yeah, it's an interesting experience..."
The 44-year-old Canberra-based astronomer along with US scientists Saul Perlmutter and Adam Reiss was awarded the 2011 Nobel Prize for Physics on Tuesday for a 1998 discovery that the universe’s expansion is accelerating.
Once the news of the award sunk in, Schmidt said, ''It was like when my first son was born. t was a life-changing experience.
''I feel weak at the knees. I guess it's one of those things … you think it is probably never going to happen.'
''Gravity should slow the universe down, so when we found the reverse was happening it was a real surprise. But the more we looked, the stronger the result became.”—Brain Schmidt
Expansion of the universe
Schmidt formed the High-Z SN Search team, to analyze distant exploding stars, or supernovae, to trace the expansion of our universe back in time.
They essentially used the brightness of lights reaching the earth from the supernovas to measure distances.
The scientists found evidence that the exploding stars were growing dimmer, an indication that the universe was stretching at an ever increasing speed.
Though it is not clear what is causing the universe to expand at an exponentially increasing rate, experts theorize it is driven by a mysterious force known as dark energy, a kind of inverse gravity.
Schmidt stated, ''Gravity should slow the universe down, so when we found the reverse was happening it was a real surprise. But the more we looked, the stronger the result became.
"It was being pushed, which means that gravity is working differently than we expected."
He added, "So it would seem that by discovering an accelerating universe, our team actually discovered 75 per cent of the universe as this new magical stuff we call dark energy,"
A joint US-Australian citizen
Professor Schmidt graduated with a doctorate from Harvard University in 1993. He moved with his Australian wife to Canberra in 1995 and holds dual U.S.-Australian citizenship.
Schmidt is now a professor at the Australian National University's Research School of Astronomy and Astrophysics.
He is the 12th Australian to win a Nobel and the first to be awarded the physics prize since 1915.