ACADEMICS AND RESEARCH
Nobel prize-winning physicist zooms through history of the universe
Brian Schmidt, vice chancellor of the Australian National University and 2011 Physics Nobel Prize winner, explained the origins and future of the universe Wednesday night in the Whittenberger Auditorium.
“No matter what you think is happening on Earth today, the universe is a calm, beautiful place,” Schmidt said as the audience laughed halfheartedly.
In 1994 while serving as postdoctoral research associate at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, Schmidt lead the High-Z Supernova Search team, IU President Michael McRobbie said.
In 2011 Schmidt won the Nobel Prize in Physics for showing the expansion of the universe is speeding up with his work as part of this team.
“Schmidt gained an appreciation for nature and science at an early age,” McRobbie said.
Cosmologists believe an unknown force, dark energy, causes this growth and makes up more than 70 percent of the universe.
In cosmology, the study of the origins of the universe, astronomers have studied the faint light from stars and planets.
“When you looked at the light’s spectrum, it was stretched by the redness of a star’s spectrum due to the Doppler effect,” Schmidt said.
Similar to the increasing frequency of an approaching police car siren, light from stars changes color as those stars move. Early 20th-century scientists measured the speed of nearby galaxies through these changes in light’s color.
“It’s not that objects are moving away from us,” Schmidt said. “More that the space between us is expanding and stretching light.”
Schmidt shared animated images of planets and stars zooming past one another throughout the history of the cosmos.
“If you’re going the speed of light you can go around the earth about seven and a half times in one second,” Schmidt said.
Using the speed of light to describe the vastness of space, Schmidt explained the moon is one and a half light-seconds away from earth and the sun is about eight light-minutes away.
The light that reaches people on Earth, and the images people see of the moon and sun are delayed by these times, Schmidt said.
“Here we’re looking back more than 12 billion years into the past,” Schmidt said, showing a photograph of hundreds of bright dots, each one of them a galaxy. “But it is only 1 thirteen-millionth of the entire sky.”
Through more pictures of nebula and stars, Schmidt showed just how big the universe is.
If the sun were a basketball at IU, the next closest star system, Alpha Centauri would be in Canberra, Australia, Schmidt said.
“This is the universe 13.8 billion years ago,” Schmidt said, displaying an specked photograph with bright blue and red dots. “The universe was a billion times denser than it is now, thousands of times hotter, a time when the universe was born in a big bang.”
Schmidt speculated on the future of the universe as well as the possibility of extraterrestrial life.
“In roughly 5 or 6 billion years from now, the sun is going to explode and destroy the Earth,” Schmidt said.
It will collapse in a supernova explosion into a tiny star called a white dwarf, spreading material throughout the cosmos Schmidt said.
“When people ask me if there’s life out there, I just say ‘I don’t know’,” Schmidt said. “I know there are a lot of chances for it.”
When you win a Nobel Prize, they call you up and tell you, ‘Hi, you’ve just won a Nobel Prize. Have fun.’ Schmidt said.
Upon accepting the prize, Schmidt gave the King of Sweden a bottle of wine from his own winery.
“Nobel prizes are ultimately about celebrating science,” Schmidt said.
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