Saturday, October 15, 2011

Noble Prize

 This post will also be found in Tehachapi's The Loop Newspaper.  
We all live with the myths we grew up with. In mathematics there are myths too. Some based in facts, but others not so much. These are tales of far distant times used to help us explain the world we find ourselves in. And one of the important myths of mathematics explains “Why there is no Nobel Prize in Mathematics.”

The story, told in hushed voices among the graduate students, is that Alfred Nobel, the creator of the Nobel Prize, didn't set up a prize for mathematics because his wife had an affair with a mathematician. This is comforting to the young mathematicians since it explains why they were left out of the prestigious prizes. Of course it's wrong. Nobel never married. So there was no wife to have the affair. The actual reason is more likely to be that Alfred Nobel just didn't think of math as being sufficiently practical.

The closest to math that the Nobel prizes get is physics (I discount Economics, since I prefer to deal with reality). And this year the Nobel Prize in Physics went to a group of astrophysicists that brought us Dark Energy.

In the early 20th century the fact that the universe was expanding was discovered by Hubble. This led to the theory of the Big Bang, which was confirmed by the discovery of the cosmic background radiation. (Which won the discoverers a Nobel Prize back in 1978.) So we knew the Universe was expanding. Prior to 1998 the idea was that the expansion of the Universe should be decelerating. That is it should be slowing down because gravity should be pulling everything back.

But in 1998, groups studying distant supernovas found that rather than slowing down, the expansion of the Universe was speeding up. That discovery is what just won Saul Permutter, Adam Riess, and Brian Schmidt the 2011 Nobel prize in physics.

Of course the discovery was a bit of a shock, since everyone expected to find that the expansion was slowing down. An explanation was required. And the explanation currently used is that of Dark Energy. Which doesn't say much, since Dark Energy is the name that is used to describe the force that is accelerating the expansion of the Universe.

One of the possible explanations of Dark Energy is “vacuum energy.” In quantum mechanics, at the really small scales there are “virtual” particles coming into existence and immediately disappearing again. (Heisenberg's Uncertainty principle is lurking in there.) Under this theory these virtual particles exert the outward pressure and give us the Dark Energy force.

I sort of understand vacuum energy. Which means it is probably wrong. Another factor is that it doesn't seem to be the right amount of force. Vacuum energy should be higher than that measured for Dark Energy. So Dark Energy isn't really understood yet.

But there's nothing wrong with that. It's questions that matter the most. Answers are easy. Too many are just made up. Just think about all the myths you've been exposed to over the years. Asking questions and finding answers, often counter to our expectations, that's what wins the noble prize. 

Definition, noble: of an exalted moral or mental character or excellence.

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