NSF-Funded Research Heads Science Magazine's Top Ten Advances Of 1998

December 17, 1998

Accelerating universe expansion and circadian rhythms are listed one-two

National Science Foundation (NSF)-supported research led to the two most important scientific advances in 1998, according to a new Science magazine summary of the ten discoveries it considered the most important of the year. The list is released in the December 18th edition.

"This recognition by Science of newly-breaking discoveries NSF has funded is an indicator that we're making good use of the taxpayer's support for the many scientific fields and education programs we undertake," Joseph Bordogna, NSF's acting deputy director said. "The unimaginable becomes imaginable, and then attainable, by the hard and dedicated work of these scientists who continue to unlock the secrets of the universe."

Two independent teams of NSF-supported astronomers who concluded that the expansion of the universe is accelerating were cited by Science as having made the top scientific research advance of 1998.

While it has been known for many years that the universe has been continually expanding since the "Big Bang," the discovery by these research teams has drawn a new picture of the universe - one of infinite expansion that is driven by a yet unknown force.

It was thought previously that gravitational attraction between galaxies would be enough to slow the expansion of the universe, given sufficient matter. However, Brian Schmidt of Mount Stromlo and Sidings Springs Observatories, leading his High-Z Supernova Search team, and Saul Perlmutter of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories, directing the Supernova Cosmology Project team, discovered that not enough matter exists to slow the pace of an expanding universe, and in fact, expansion of the universe is actually speeding up. These independent teams of astronomers obtained and verified their findings through NSF's National Optical Astronomy Observatories (NOAO) in Chile and in the United States.

At NOAO's Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory (CTIO) in Chile, the astronomy teams used the Blanco telescope to discover supernovae in distant galaxies. Supernovae are exploding stars that increase in brightness to rival that of the parent galaxy. The researchers used these supernovae in calculating distances to distant galaxies. The distance to the supernova and its redshift - the speed it is moving away from us - are used to measure the changing expansion rate of the universe.

Schmidt and Perlmutter's research teams then verified their findings over several months at telescopes around the world, including NOAO's Kitt Peak National Observatory near Tuscon, Arizona. NOAO is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy (AURA) under a cooperative agreement with NSF.

Science also cited research in circadian rhythms, the built-in mechanism most organisms on Earth use to keep track of the 24-hour cycle between night and day, as the second most important discovery in 1998. Much of the recent research work on these "circadian rhythms" has been funded by NSF, including a newly discovered gene in the fruit fly Drosophila that regulates the molecular cycles underlying circadian rhythms and the molecular mechanism that allows the gene to work. The work was performed by researchers affiliated with NSF's Center for Biological Timing headquartered in Charlottesville, Virginia. Another team of biologists at Vanderbilt and Texas A & M Universities identified three genes essential to circadian rhythms in cyanobacteria. These are the simplest organisms known to have such "internal clocks" that react to night and day.
Program contacts:
Benjamin Snavely, NSF Division of Astronomical Sciences
Christopher Platt, NSF Division of Integrative Biology and Neuroscience

National Science Foundation

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