Physics prof, alum contributed to research that won the 2011 Nobel Prize

Late one night in June 1998, Physics Prof. Larry Marschall and Akbar Rizvi ’99 were at the Gettysburg Observatory monitoring the explosion of a supernova. Little did they know, the data they were collecting would become part of research that won the Nobel Prize in Physics more than a decade later.

“I never imagined that our observations made so long ago would become part of an acclaimed body of scientific work,” said Rizvi, a physics and mathematics double major at Gettysburg. “I was quite stunned and pleasantly surprised to hear that some of our collaborators had gone on to win the Nobel.”

Longtime questions in the field of physics revolve around how rapidly the universe is expanding. Physicists have long tried to determine the relation between distance and speed in the universe. The furthest galaxies seem to be receding the fastest, but the precise distance of remote galaxies has proven very hard to measure.

Rizvi loads liquid nitrogen into a camera at NURO in 1997The late 90’s saw a big push for the collection of data regarding supernovas, which are exploding stars so powerful that astronomers thought they might be a key to measuring exact distances. Marschall and research assistant Rizvi were ready to record data when the alert went out that supernova SN1998bu in the galaxy M96 in the Leo group of galaxies, around 38 million light years away, was exploding.

Marschall and Rizvi carefully determined the brightness and the color of this distant supernova to help determine exactly how much light it was giving off.

The data they collected that night helped to calibrate the supernova’s distance scale. These measurements and others, published in the Astrophysical Journal Supplement, contributed to the determination of the speed and distance of this supernova. Forty-two scientists, including Rizvi, Marschall, and two of this year’s Nobel winners, coauthored the publication.

Many such “supernova calibration” papers were written by astronomers during the 1990s, each one contributing a little bit to the establishment of standards of supernova power that could be used to determine the distances to other galaxies too remote to measure any other way.

Eventually, using these calibrations, Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt, and Adam Riess conducted surveys of much more distant galaxies than those observed from Gettysburg, finding, to everyone’s surprise, that not only was the universe expanding, but it was also speeding up! It was being pushed outward by “dark energy,” a mysterious force that acts in a way opposite to gravity. For their work in discovering the accelerating universe, the three astronomers received the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics.

Marschall has been a coauthor with all three of this year’s prizewinners, Schmidt and Riess in this paper and Perlmutter and Schmidt in an article in Astronomical Journal in 1993.

About Rizvi

A native of Karachi, Pakistan, Rizvi ’99 (pictured above loading liquid nitrogen into a camera at NURO in 1997), a physics and mathematics double major, was the advertising manager for the college newspaper and treasurer of the International Club, in addition to his work as a research assistant at Gettysburg College.

Marschall (left) and Rizvi (right) hike with other physics students at the Grand Canyon during a 1999 trip to NURO“Gettysburg provided me with an excellent opportunity to do hands-on work at the Gettysburg Observatory,” said Rizvi (pictured at right with Marschall (far left) and other physics students hiking at the Grand Canyon during a 1999 trip to NURO). “Additionally, thanks to Dr. Marschall, I got to carry out many observations at the National Undergraduate Research Observatory (NURO) in Flagstaff, Ariz.”

As a Physics student, Rizvi also had the opportunity to accompany Marschall to the American Astronomical Society meeting in Austin, Texas. He was one of the only undergraduate students there.

Another memorable experience for Rizvi was when he traveled to the National Institute of Standards and Technology in spring 1997 with other students in Prof. Tim Good’s optics class. During that trip he had another close encounter with the Nobel.

“It was a state-of-the-art facility, and we were given a tour by Dr. William D. Phillips, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work later that year, which he shared with two other physicists,” said Rizvi. “It was quite a feeling to have met a Nobel Laureate.”

After graduating from Gettysburg, Rizvi pursued graduate studies at West Virginia University, obtaining his M.S. in physics and M.A. in secondary education. He is now teaching math and physics at a charter school in Flagstaff.

“Having made five trips to Flagstaff between 1996 and 1999 for astronomy work at NURO, I never imagined that I would someday end up moving to Flagstaff to teach. It is great being here,” said Rizvi.

About Marschall

Physics Prof. Marschall joined the Gettysburg faculty in 1971. He teaches courses in astronomy, physics, and science writing. Marschall's areas of research include observational studies of binary stars, very young stars, and supernovas and recently, asteroids.

He is known for his work in astronomy education, both in promoting the use of electronic cameras for undergraduate research at small observatories, and in directing Project CLEA (Contemporary Laboratory Experiences in Astronomy), which develops innovative computer exercises in astronomy that are used by tens of thousands of students in all 50 states and 50 foreign countries. Marschall received the 2005 Education Prize from The American Astronomical Society in recognition of his contributions to astronomy education worldwide.

Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

Posted: Mon, 16 Jan 2012

Next on your reading list

Prof. D’Addario, the time traveler

1/3 of your life is spent at work

Navigating the network on LinkedIn

Share this story: