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2011 Nobel Prize Winners Announced

October 12, 2011

New Laureates include NSF-affiliated researchers in Physics and Economics

With the last of the 2011 Nobel Laureates announced yesterday, it is noteworthy that five of these recipients have conducted research supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF)–Saul Perlmutter, Brian P. Schmidt and Adam G. Riess received the Nobel Prize in Physics; and Thomas J. Sargent and Christopher A. Sims received the Nobel Prize in Economics.

“The international community of scientists once again recognized the bold contributions that NSF-supported researchers have made to the scientific enterprise,” said NSF Director Subra Suresh. “Over the years, more than 195 Nobel Prizes have been awarded to scientists, whose fundamental research has been supported by NSF at some point in their careers.”

The NSF-supported 2011 laureates were recognized for the following research:

Nobel Prize in Physics: Saul Perlmutter, Brian P. Schmidt and Adam G. Riess

This year’s Nobel Laureates in Physics, Saul Perlmutter, 52, (Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and University of California, Berkeley) and joint winners Brian P. Schmidt, 44, (The Australian National University) and Adam G. Riess, 41, (The Johns Hopkins University and the Space Telescope Science Institute) made a discovery that illuminates the potential future of our universe. According to the laureates, the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate as a result of the mysterious force of dark energy.

Dark energy is invisible and makes up roughly 70 percent of all mass and energy in the Universe, and is still much of a mystery to scientists. In contrast, the visible and material matter–from galaxies to oceans to humans–consists of roughly only 5 percent of the universe. The rest of the universe is made up of dark matter, which consists of a gravitational pull and is still not completely understood.

The Nobel-winning work is based on observations of exploding stars, or supernovae.

NSF played a role in the foundations of this work, as numerous groups and instruments with NSF support contributed to the discoveries. NSF-funded researcher Robert Kirshner was a key player, and both Schmidt and Riess worked in his group when they were graduate students at Harvard University. Schmidt and Riess were supported by Kirshner’s NSF grants during the period in the 1990s when key supernovae observations were made, which were crucial to the Nobel-winning discoveries.

Later, the Supernova Cosmology Project, led by Perlmutter and another team–the High-z Supernova Search Team, led by Schmidt in which Riess played a major role–examined the amount of light that was being emitted by the supernovae in order to determine the distance of these stars. The work of the Supernova Cosmology Project was partly supported by NSF through the Center for Astroparticle Physics at the University of California, Berkeley.

Both teams found that the light of over 50 distant supernovae was weaker than predicted–the supernovae, still set in their galaxies, were fading as they were being pushed away at an accelerated rate.

Crucial discoveries of 10 new supernovae were made using the Cerro Tololo Interamerican Observatory (CTIO) Blanco Telescope, which is part of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO) funded by NSF. The Kitt Peak National Observatory of NOAO and the NSF-supported Gemini Observatory also played important roles either in the discovery phase or in follow-up confirmation observations.

The findings of the Nobel Laureates will contribute to learning more about the past, present and the future of the Universe.

“NSF funded supernova research as pure inquiry to find out more about the Universe. It was serendipitous that it led to a revolution, and the discoverers are appropriately credited for realizing what they had found, but this is almost a perfect example of standing on the shoulders of giants,” said Nigel Sharp, a program director in the Division of Astronomical Sciences at NSF. “NSF support was essential to plow the field in which this discovery was sown.”

Nobel Prize in Economics: Thomas J. Sargent and Christopher A. Sims

This year’s Nobel Laureates in Economics, Thomas J. Sargent, 68, (New York University) and Christopher A. Sims, 68, (Princeton University) developed methods to answer questions “regarding the causal relationship between economic policy and different macroeconomic variables such as GDP, inflation, employment and investments,” according to a press release issued by The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Both Sargent and Sims are long-time NSF awardees. Sims has received 11 NSF awards since 1976 and Sargent has received 10 NSF awards since 1985.

The Nobel-winning work of Sargent and Sims is based on their contributions to a field of research known as “empirical macroeconomics.” Work in this area develops advanced data analysis methods and uses those methods to uncover cause-and-effect relationships in an entire economy.

Sargent’s work helps to understand the linkages between households and businesses–or, those who make decisions today based on what they expect the economy will look like in the future–and government policy. Sims developed sophisticated data analysis methods that can help us understand how temporary factors affect the entire economy

These findings can help answer questions such as, “How does a temporary increase in the interest rate or tax cut affect GDP or inflation?” Or, “If the government modifies its objective to establish a budgetary balance, what will happen?”

As countries around the world struggle to boost their economies, this research will prove especially valuable.

“Sargent and Sims developed methods that vastly improved our understanding of how economic outcomes like growth and inflation are affected by changes in government policy (for example, tax cuts),” said Nancy Lutz, program director for Economics at NSF. “Their research findings and the methods they developed are essential tools that are widely used both by other researchers and by policymakers around the world.”

The prestigious Nobel Prize has been awarded for achievements in physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace since 1901 by the Nobel Foundation in Stockhom, Sweden. The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences was established in 1968 in Memory of Alfred Nobel, the founder of the Nobel Prize. Recipients receive a medal and a diploma and share a cash award, to be presented in December.

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