Then we decided to go really public and make a big splash and put the poster up at the January 9, 1998, American Astronomical Society meeting. We did a poster, a talk and a press conference. Then it became even more visible when the competing team came out with their results and used other terminology: "antigravity."
That other team was the High-Z Supernova Search team led by Brian Schmidt of the Australian National University. What was the sense of competition between your Supernova Cosmology Project and the High-Z team?
There were some advantages to both teams announcing so close to one another. I don't know of many times in science history where there was something that should have been a big surprise and that people should not have accepted. By the end of the year this was treated as a done deal in many circles. There are so many different things that happened that are relevant to this discovery. In the most parochial sense, members of my team feel we worked very hard to establish all the techniques that would make this thing work. Then the other team announced their results a month and a half later at a meeting at Marina del Rey where we also presented. It's a lot easier to present your results that are a real shock when you know another group has already got it. Our group would feel there's priority, that they established it. But it's also true that there's a final published paper that came out from the other group first.
Why didn't you publish in January of 1998, when you announced the finding?
We thought that establishing what the result was and getting that out to the community was the most important thing, and making sure that every last issue was checked and cross-checked. We didn't think there was an issue of priority.
I think most people feel that it plays as a simultaneous event. We could have been the winners if we had presented in a slightly different way. In the big picture, some days you get a little annoyed, but I can’t get too annoyed if everyone shares the credit. When you step back and ask, these kind of discoveries depend on so many things being put together. It took people spending years to understand different aspects. These results don't come about because one person did something, but because a community worked very hard to prove the result.
To what do you most attribute your scientific success?
I think the biggest thing is, first of all, being willing to learn things, being willing to pick up a new area, but also just being able to work with other people. Most of these jobs are too big for any one person. You end up trying to find a team of people who are as excited as you are and want to push the technique forward. I'm always struck by the fact that the image of the scientist is as a lone person wearing a lab jacket in the lab by themselves for hours, whereas my sense is that maybe the single most important thing for a scientist, aside from being able to think of good questions, is figuring out good people to work with and enjoying the process of inventing ideas together with other people.
Do you get excited in October, when the Nobel Prizes are announced?
These prizes are such a funny thing. The biggest concern is about taking credit. It's always nice to be someone that people thought did something nice. People can spend their whole lives waiting to see if they'll get the Nobel Prize, and it's not a very healthy psychological state.