Adam G. Riess

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Knowledge . . . the Great Equalizer

Curiosity and the ability to seek answers to your own questions

is one of the most powerful tools you can have.

During long family drives when I was young, I would repeatedly

ask my parents how much further it was to our

destination. Growing tired of answering, they told me the

number of the highway mile and thereafter I was content to

estimate the distance and arrival time myself. Math, and later

physics, excited me because they offered the power to figure

out what I wanted to know on my own.

They say, “curiosity killed the cat,” but don’t believe it!

Curiosity and the ability to seek answers to your own questions

is one of the most powerful tools you can have. Knowledge

and the ability to gather it is the great equalizer. You do

not have to be rich or popular to be able to find things out

or discover something new. It only takes curiosity and the

courage to pursue the answers and an unyielding mind set to

overcome the inevitable obstacles and challenges.

Physics, the subject that is central to my life’s work

started out as the hardest for me. When I first took physics in

high school, I didn’t understand it, and I needed help from a

tutor. Then one day it just clicked. Physics was a new way of

thinking and, once I started to think in this new way, I never

stopped.

I also discovered that thinking about physics and the universe

(and all the stars, galaxies, and planets in it) gave me a

satisfying and global perspective about my life. In fact, when

there was something in my every day life that was getting me

down or troubling me, I found I could go out and look up at

Source: Printed with permission from Adam G. Riess.

the stars and my troubles began to feel insignificant. My Dad

once told me that the stars were so far away that we only ever

see them the way they were in the past since it takes millions

of years for their light to get to us. I couldn’t believe that they

could be so far away! That cosmic perspective made me feel

my individual problems were really small.

By the time I was a teenager I became curious about our

whole universe. I wanted to know how old it is, where it came

from, and whether it was getting bigger or smaller. I was

amazed to learn in school that you could do more than just

wonder about the universe. You could go out and measure it!

Astronomers used powerful telescopes and the same

techniques that surveyors used to chart the changing expansion

rate of the universe. I decided I wanted to help make the

measurements necessary to answer my questions and discover

how the universe was changing. Measuring the distance

to far away galaxies in the universe, where there are no mile

markers, is one of the biggest challenges in astronomy. In

order to figure out how the universe was growing I needed to

measure distances more than halfway across the universe!

In graduate school I developed a new method to make

these measurements. My method was not as accurate as the

mile markers on the highways but it was more accurate than

previous methods.

When my teammates and I measured the rate at which the

universe was growing, we found a big surprise! The universe

is expanding faster and faster all the time! This was the opposite

of what we and other astronomers expected we would

see. Trying to understand why the universe is speeding up remains

one of the biggest mysteries in science today. It’s funny

how you can set out to answer one question and end up raising

another.