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A Chance Encounter and a Lesson about Taking Chances

A chance conversation on an airline flight points to the long-lasting value that comes from funding highly innovative basic scientific research. The story was told to Research Corporation’s Board of Directors by its Chair, Patrick Osmer, a noted astronomer who is also vice provost for graduate studies and dean of the Graduate School of The Ohio State University.

Osmer’s wife, Anita, was traveling alone on a flight from Chile to Arizona. A kind and gracious woman, she naturally struck up a conversation with the man seated next to her on the plane. He identified himself as Carl Pennypacker, an astronomer. When Anita Osmer mentioned that her husband was also an astronomer, Pennypacker instantly recognized the name. Among other subjects, Osmer is an authority on the evolution of distant quasars and their relation to their host galaxies.

When Anita also mentioned her husband’s connection to Research Corporation, Pennypacker excitedly pointed out that more than three decades ago, the Foundation played an important role in beginning the effort that eventually led to the discovery of dark energy.

Thought to permeate all of space, dark energy is hypothesized to be the cause of the accelerated expansion of the Universe. But recognizing this acceleration required a scientific quest of more than two decades.

Pennypacker said the story began in 1980 when he was a postdoctoral researcher working under the direction of Professor Richard Muller at the University of California, Berkeley. Muller had submitted a proposal for an innovative research project that the National Science Foundation declined to fund.

Ahead of the curve Muller had correctly recognized the potential for astronomical sky surveys using a charged coupled device (CCD), at the time only recently developed for digital imaging, when operated with a small computer. In the late 1970s and early ‘80s small computers were also a novelty. Nevertheless, Muller recognized the CCD-computer combination would enable the automated search and discovery of supernovas, which are the extremely violent explosions some stars undergo at the end of their lives, giving off intense amounts of brilliant light.

When the NSF declined funding, Muller turned to Research Corporation. Muller wrote, “We propose an automated survey of several thousand galaxies every night, making full use of recent advances in automatic imaging techniques and small computers … A careful study of the supernova light curve and spectrum could allow the supernovas to be used as a “standard candle” for the measurement of Hubble’s Law and estimation of the average mass density of the Universe (i.e., to answer the question of whether the Universe is finite or infinite).”

Following protocol a Research Corporation program officer sent the proposal for external review. After reading the reviews his comment was prescient:

In my untutored view, this is one of the more exciting proposals to come along in quite awhile. If Muller can pull this off, the ramifications could be enormous.

And a Research Corporation Science Advisory Committee member said:

Grant. 1) Science is extremely important. 2) R.A. Muller is a prize-winning physicist – he’s a good experimentalist who gets things done. 3) The fact that even he has to come to us for funds shows again that the system is totally closed to new departures. 4) Muller’s previous ventures (observing 30K radiation from NASA airplanes and optical feedback control) show the same originality … He will vault over corpses …

Research Corporation followed this recommendation and funded the project, and Muller’s vision proved farsighted indeed; but it took several years to develop the technology and then automatically locate supernovas. By that point Muller had founded what eventually became known as the Supernova Cosmology Project (SCP) based at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Initially, Muller was the Principle Investigator with full responsibility for everything from scientific direction to fundraising. Pennypacker (Mueller’s former postdoctoral research assistant) and Saul Perlmutter (Muller's former graduate student) were early and important researchers participating in the project.

“I made the decision that we needed to focus only on Type I [supernovas],” Muller said recently. “Carl and Saul supported this decision.” Muller added,

Carl and Saul soon proposed that the project make a major jump, from studying nearby supernovas, to doing surveys at larger telescopes for cosmological ones. As the PI, I backed their initiative. They did most of the development work for this stage. But I remained PI for several years. When the Center for Particle Astrophysics was created, I proposed that the cosmological search be one of the three major thrusts, and that was accepted. 

At one point the Center for Particle Astrophysics considered zeroing funding for the SCP and it almost died, but Muller fought hard against that and prevailed. Then, according to Muller,

Carl and Saul made so much progress that I decided it would be best to put Saul in charge and I arranged for the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory to recognize him as the new PI. The group continued to expand; I believe it was Carl who enticed Gerson Goldhaber to join. I stayed on the project for several years, but felt that my contributions were not sufficient for me to put my name on the papers. At that point I dropped out in order to spend full time on climate change.

“In the early days people thought measuring expansion with supernovas would be too hard,” reflected Perlmutter, as quoted by Paul Pruess, writing on the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory website. However, Pruess adds,

The SCP went on to show that distant supernovas, short-lived and unpredictable as they are, can nevertheless be collected “on demand,” allowing observers to schedule telescope time in advance and accumulate enough data to make confident estimates of expansion.

“In retrospect it seems obvious, but we realized that the whole process could be systematized [Muller’s fundamental idea funded by Research Corporation],” Perlmutter explains. “By searching the same group of galaxies three weeks apart, we could find supernova candidates that had appeared in the meantime. We could guarantee four to eight supernovas each time, and all of them would be on the way up, growing brighter instead of already fading.1

Eventually the SCP discovered the remarkable fact that the expansion of the universe, first announced by Édouard Lemaître in 1927, was actually accelerating. Perlmutter shared the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics with Brian Schmidt and Adam Riess for providing evidence for that acceleration. But by then – actually in 1998 – theoretical cosmologist Michael S. Turner, of the University of Chicago, had coined the term “dark energy” as he and others struggled to explain the cause of cosmic acceleration. 

Muller, we’re happy to note, continues to produce groundbreaking research and important new ideas, as evidenced by his leadership of the Berkeley Earth project, which produced an exhaustive analysis of historical global temperature change that shows a strong correlation with atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. Muller is also the author of several excellent popular science books, including Physics for Future Presidents and Energy for Future Presidents.

“The Research Corporation grant played an important effort in taking us down the path that led to the discovery of dark energy,” said Osmer. “The path and that eventual discovery also tell a good story about how science progresses in today’s era.” It also tells a good story of how a small foundation, willing to fund high-risk/high-reward research, can help great scientists make a big difference in our understanding of the Universe.

As Pennypacker noted recently:

The fact that Research Corporation was willing to take a chance on young investigators on potentially paradigm-shifting research was unique then, and is still largely unique and rare in modern science funding. As federal funds continue their relentless and steady decline, there is a tendency in many science communities to create experiments that are very safe and risk-adverse and are designed by committee. Such safe experiments are important and needed, but they often cannot help develop the big breakthroughs we made.


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