“We expected to get the same reception like the neutrino [OPERA] team [if our results were wrong],” said Nobel Laureate Brian P. Schmidt while interacting with the media on the second day of the 62 Nobel Laureates Meeting at Lindau, Germany, from July 1 to July 7. He was referring to his team’s work on expanding universe that got him the Nobel Prize for Physics last year.

When Dr. Schmidt got the results in the beginning of 1998, there was much debate within the team on the correctness of the finding. In 1997 another team working on the same problem did not get the same result. “We were getting a different result. There was much debate [whether to publish].  But independent of the other team, we made a decision to publish,” he told The Hindu, whilerecalling the atmosphere prior to the publication of the results.

“It seemed too crazy to be right. We were a little scared,” he was quoted as saying in the abstract provided by the Lindau committee.  After all, the team had expected to trace a deceleration in the expansion.

“We wanted to keep an open mind.  Ultimately it requires adequate proof to make a claim,” he said. Dr. Schmidt’s work on expanding universe was based on observational studies and not an experimental work like the OPERA (Oscillation Project with Emulsion-tRacking Apparatus) team.    

The OPERA team published a paper in September 2011 stating that neutrinos travelled 60 nanoseconds faster than light. It later became apparent that the calculations were wrong, and the mistake was due to faulty wiring. 

Two members of the OPERA team had to step down owing to severe criticism. Dr. Schmidt came out strongly against the scientific community’s attitude towards mistakes arising from genuinely conducted work. “Scientists are scathingly critical of each other. The [scientific] community has been hard on them,” he said of his fellow-researchers. “Scientists should not be crucified for making mistakes.”

With good telescopes, scientists are able to see the atmosphere of outer planets and deduce the existence of life in those planets. “We are able to detect molecules in the atmosphere [of those planets],” he said. “The chemical signatures in these outer planets are very different from what you can detect.”

Answering to a question on what these life forms would be like, he said: “Even simple bacteria are different from what we expect to see.” Hence they are not restricting their search based on life forms as seen on earth. “At this point in time, we are not looking at carbon based life but at all forms,” he added.  

Answering a question on whether his life has changed after winning the Nobel Prize, he said, “Nobel Prize has not changed what I do.”

But, of course, he enjoys many advantages. “It has opened up many bridges, especially with the government,” he said. “Ability to get money [funding] has changed.  It is a bit easier.” But he stressed that it has not changed the way his papers are published. In a broader and a more positive way, he has been able to bring up issues that everyone agrees on.

(This Correspondent is one of the two journalists from India participating in the 62nd Nobel Laureates Meeting at Lindau, Germany, at the invitation of the German Research Foundation, Bonn.)

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