Two Utah Astronomers tangentially acquainted to Physics Nobel laureate

(Note: This is in honor of – and with all due respect to – the winners of this year’s 2011 Nobel Prize in physics.  This really was a special time to watch the supernovae data come down as researchers diligently pushed observations to larger and larger red-shifts.  Still, I just couldn’t resist given the current WriteScience prompt of “headlines”!)

OGDEN, UT – In a surprise outpouring of residual honor, two Utah astronomers received recognition last week for being co-located at the same university as Dr. Adam Riess while he conducted his award-winning research that lead to his sharing of the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Weber State University Associate Professor John Armstrong, a classically trained astronomer, graduated from the University of Washington and worked closely with team members there whose offices were next to where Dr. Riess and colleagues performed some of the research that led to the award.

Another Utah astrophysicist, Dr. Stacy Palen, also an Associate Professor at Weber State University, frequently attended lunch meetings with Dr. Riess’s colleague Professor Chris Stubbs, now at Harvard.

The two Weber State University professors learned of their honor after being contacted over FM frequencies by the National Public Radio station KUER, broadcasting from Salt Lake City, Utah last Tuesday.

“It is a real honor to be recognized as someone who worked with someone who worked closely with a Nobel laureate,” said Dr. Armstrong.  “At 39 years of age, I am not the youngest person to have worked near Dr. Riess, but it is an honor to achieve this much before I am 40.”

“The work that went into watching researchers observe that our universe is not only expanding but accelerating was immense,” said Dr. Palen, “I truly feel part of the scientific process.”

The significance of those accomplishments are not lost on Dr. Armstrong.  “We’ve known the Universe is expanding since Hubble’s earliest observations,” he said, referring to Edwin Hubble’s pioneering work measuring the recession rates of galaxies, “but to learn that the recession rate is accelerating is truly unexpected.  It is one of the most surprising observations of the last few decades.”

“Such accomplishments literally force us to re-write the astronomy textbooks,” said Dr. Palen, “And I do mean literally.  I just finished re-writing mine.”

Both Drs. Palen and Armstrong recall several seminars on the topic of cosmology, many attended by Dr. Riess and his colleagues.  “Little did I know, at the time, of our contribution to this important effort,” reflected Dr. Armstrong.

Dr. Riess was part of the High-z Supernova team, created in 1994 by Brian P. Schmidt, then a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University, and Nicholas B. Suntzeff of Cerro Tololo Inter-American University in Chile.  Dr. Riess and colleagues went on to form the Higher-z Supernova Team, eventually securing the observations that led to the award.

Dr. Riess, now a Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Johns Hopkins University, shares the award with Saul Perlmutter, of the University of California, Berkeley, and Brian P. Schmidt of the Australian National University.  Dr. Palen and Dr. Armstrong share no affiliation with the co-awardees, according to sources.

Horatio Allen Tibbets of the Cloudy Mountain National Observatory in Utah could not be reached for comment.

2 responses to “Two Utah Astronomers tangentially acquainted to Physics Nobel laureate

  1. I am honored to be working with you, so that I am someone who has worked with someone who has worked with someone who has a Nobel Prize.

  2. Kevin Bacon is actually my cousin, too, so you’ve got that going for you…

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