How To: Win a Nobel Prize
November 30, 2011 |  by Michael Anft

Astrophysicists have known for decades that the universe is expanding. Still, they’ve wondered, could the expansion eventually peter out, leaving the universe to ultimately end when gravity causes all celestial bodies to crash together? In 1998, two competing research teams studying light left by stars that exploded billions of years ago found that the universe was much more likely to end in a whimper than a crunch. The reason? The universe is not only expanding but flying apart at a higher rate of speed.

Scientists theorized that vacuum energy—labeled “dark energy” because we understand little about its nature—was pushing galaxies apart faster. Adam Riess, a professor of physics and astronomy at the Krieger School since 2005, was the lead author of the first journal publication on the accelerating universe. He shared the Nobel Prize in physics, announced in October. Riess explains, with little gravity, how the world’s most prestigious award is won.

Pick a project. Among the wish list options early on in Riess’ career was “making first contact with E.T.” He wisely chose to study the universe’s expansion instead. Discover something mind-blowing—like dark energy, for example. To do this, you need to follow some steps within steps: Observe, analyze, do the math. Then publish, promote, repeat.
Be awakened by a phone call at 5:30 a.m. by someone who has a Swedish accent but who isn’t from Ikea. Explain to your 7-year-old daughter that winning the Nobel Prize is like getting a gold star for your schoolwork.

Illustrations by Wesley Bedrosian