Scientist bright star in his field

November 11, 2003|By Gerald P. Merrell | Gerald P. Merrell,SUN STAFF

Any award that is shared with Will Ferrell, one-half of the pathetic head-jerking, girl-prowling Butabi brothers from Saturday Night Live, may be of dubious distinction, but that is the fate of Adam Riess.

Riess, an astrophysicist at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, is among a group of people chosen as the country's "best and brightest" in the new issue of Esquire magazine, which hit newsstands yesterday.

It is the second year in a row that someone from Baltimore has landed on the list. Last year's crop of geniuses included Mayor Martin O'Malley, which some might suggest speaks volumes about the diligence of the magazine's research and selection process.

Riess, though, has truly accomplished something, though he prefers to say he may have made a discovery of consequence.

Five years ago, Riess headed a team that found that a force - "dark energy" - is causing the universe to speed up and expand, refuting decades of conventional thought that gravity one day would cause the world's destruction.

The dark energy discovery, by contrast, means the universe may expand forever.

Esquire also noted that Riess' observations two years ago of a star burst "confirmed the age of the universe at 14 billion years, about 5 billion years older than once thought."

The December issue of the magazine that has long chronicled "man at his finest" dubbed Riess the "Edwin Hubble of our time," referring to the renowned astronomer who discovered a vast universe beyond the Milky Way and developed the Big Bang theory.

For his part, Riess says there is too much embellishment to the magazine's portrait of him.

"There's a lot of hype in there. A lot of hyperbole," he says. " ... To call me this generation's Edwin Hubble - it's not true. I cringe."

In all, the magazine honors 27 people in three categories: culture, society and science and industry.

Ferrell graces the cover, not as the lead character in Elf, his latest movie, but as a pipe-smoking, gray-haired almost-look-alike Albert Einstein.

The process of identifying candidates and selecting the winners took about eight months, according to David Granger, an editor with Esquire.

Last year's winners were asked to suggest names, then an outside researcher examined each nominee's background and achievement. The magazine also used several consultants to assist in selecting the winners.

Mayor O'Malley wrote the introduction for this year's awards.

"Our ability to lead this increasingly smaller world of ours toward peace will depend not so much on how many smart bombs we send against our enemies; it will depend on how many smart and compassionate American hands we can extend to the most fragile of our friends around the globe," the mayor wrote.

Riess says he doesn't take the fame that's come his way too seriously.

"I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time," he says. "I don't have any illusion. There are many, many capable scientists who if presented with the same information" would have made the same discovery, he suggests.

Although his dark energy theory has widely been accepted as conventional wisdom, Riess doesn't believe it is necessarily the final word on the matter.

"It is possible it's all wrong," he says. "There's a saying that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence," and Riess does not believe his theory has yet met that standard.

Meanwhile, he has a way of putting the universe in perspective. Of his Esquire award, he notes: "It's better than being recognized as `dumb and dumbest.'"

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