Scientists rank Adam Riess’ work on the expansion of the universe with that of astronomer Edwin Hubble.

2011 Nobel Winner Adam Riess attended Drew’s Governor’s School in 1987. Photo courtesy Johns Hopkins
2011 Nobel Winner Adam Riess attended Drew’s Governor’s School in 1987. Photo courtesy Johns Hopkins

It took just 11 years for Adam Riess to go from being a 17-year-old student at the New Jersey Governor’s School in the Sciences at Drew to coming up with calculations that have upended conventional thinking in astrophysics.

And then, it took just 13 more for him to win the Nobel Prize.

Riess is credited with being the first to discover “dark energy,” a force that makes up as much as 70 percent of the universe and is causing the cosmos to expand at an accelerating rate, not slowing, as had been believed. The findings may help researchers understand what’s ultimately in store for the universe.

As a teen, what drew him to science was a teacher at Watchung Hills (N.J.) High School. What led him to physics was the Governor’s School he attended in the summer of 1987.

“I had a professor, Dr. Supplee, who I remember very well. He taught a course in special relativity that made my head spin,” said Riess, who holds degrees from MIT and Harvard and is now a professor at Johns Hopkins. “I went into the program thinking I wanted to be a geneticist or biologist, but I left wanting to be a physicist.

“Special relativity has all these crazy ideas about how objects move in space,” said Riess. “I remember arguing with him. I would say, ‘That’s how it looks, but not how it is.’”

Thrilled that his former student has won a Nobel prize, James Supplee, chair of Drew’s Department of Physics, has vivid memories of the budding scientists in the program, where he taught for a decade. “After class, 8 or 10 students would follow me to the cafeteria, asking questions,” said Supplee. “They couldn’t stop. They were so curious, the most energetic students.”

“I would have been in that group,” said Riess, who remembers living in “a dorm, back near the woods,” as well as a fellow Governor’s School student, Shari Ulrich Dunham C’92, who did her undergraduate work in chemistry at Drew and is now a professor at Moravian College.

“Adam was one of the brightest and funniest people I knew as a high school student,” said Dunham, who returned to Drew in the late 1990s as a visiting professor. “Did I know he would win the Nobel Prize some day?, she asked, pausing briefly. “He has a way of making very abstract concepts clear, but no, I thought he was a little too down to earth for that. But it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.”––Renée Olson