UH astronomer is recognized for discovery about the universe
A University of Hawaii astronomer won a share of a prestigious international science award yesterday for his role in the astonishing discovery that the universe is expanding at an ever-faster rate.
Astronomer John L. Tonry was part of a research team working on Mauna Kea that won the $500,000 Gruber Cosmology Prize, awarded annually for discoveries that alter our perception and comprehension of the universe.
He couldn't be reached immediately for comment, but UH astronomer Gareth Wynn-Williams said the idea that expansion of the universe is accelerating is "one of the biggest discoveries in science in the last few years. A very important part of the evidence comes from the work this prize is awarded for."
Tonry discovered supernovae explosions in distant galaxies using the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope on Mauna Kea in 1997.
He said in an Institute for Astronomy news release that the CFHT data coupled with data from the Keck Observatory and Hubble Space Telescope "were the key to identifying the accelerating universe."
Wynn-Williams said the $500,000 will be split between two groups that were working independently using different telescopes and came up with the same answer.
He said the acceleration of the universe's expansion implies "a new constituent of the universe which we call dark energy. We have no real idea of what it is at all. But it seems to resemble matter in the way that it follows the laws of gravity."
Brian Schmidt of Australian National University led one team; Saul Perlmutter of the University of California-Berkeley headed the other one.
The big surprise, Wynn-Williams said, is the astronomers expected to find the universe slowing down as it expands because of gravitational forces between galaxies.
Their finding that the expansion actually is accelerating instead was accepted quickly because it fits into Einstein's general theory of relativity, he said. "It was a very successful theory. It contained an odd little term that people kind of ignored. Even Einstein sort of ignored it. ... So this is perhaps why this was accepted. It hasn't required us to throw out a major theory. We just looked at it more carefully."
The Gruber Foundation in a news release said, "An accelerating universe was a crazy result that was hard to accept. Yet, two teams, racing neck and neck, simultaneously, came to the same conclusion. Their discovery led to the idea of an expansion force, dubbed dark energy. And it suggests that the fate of the universe is to just keep expanding faster and faster."