Professor James Supplee inspired a 2011 Nobel Prize winner to pursue physics.
By Renée Olson
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 to win a Nobel Prize.
As a teen, what drew him to science was a teacher at Watchung Hills Regional High School in Warren, N.J. What led him to physics was attending the Governor’s School 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,” says Riess, who holds degrees from MIT and Harvard and is now a professor at Johns Hopkins. “I left wanting to be a physicist.”
“Special relativity has all these crazy ideas about how objects move in space,” says Riess. “I remember arguing with him. I would say, ‘That’s how it looks, but not how it is.’”
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. The findings may help researchers understand what’s ultimately in store for the universe.
Thrilled that his former student won a Nobel, James Supplee, physics department chair, has vivid memories of the budding scientists in the program, where he taught for a decade. “After class, eight or 10 students would follow me to the cafeteria, asking questions,” says Supplee. “They couldn’t stop. They were so curious, the most energetic students.”
Riess, who remembers living at Drew in “a dorm back near the woods,” shares Supplee’s recollection of ardent, post-class conversations in the Commons. Says Riess, “I would have been in that group.”