Astrophysicist Adam Riess Plays Not My Job

Nov 20, 2012
Originally published on November 24, 2012 10:37 am

This segment was originally broadcast on Oct. 8, 2011.

Before he won the Nobel Prize in Physics, Adam Riess had already won a MacArthur "genius" grant, and just about every prize there is to win in his field. So there's really only one place left for him to be victorious: the Not My Job game.

In memory of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, who died Wednesday, we've invited Riess to play a game called: "Hello? Hello, are you there? Hello?" To honor the man behind the iPhone, we'll go back in time to the invention of the cellphone — that day in 1973 when inventor Martin Cooper of Motorola placed the first modern cellphone call.

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Winning a Nobel Prize, that's not cool. You know what's cool? Winning a MacArthur grant and then winning a Nobel Prize.

CARL KASELL: Astrophysicist Adam Reiss did just that, winning the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2011. And he joined us that very week, along with P.J. O'Rourke, Paula Poundstone and Luke Burbank.

SAGAL: I started by asking him if he could explain what his award was for.

DOCTOR ADAM RIESS: Sure. Well, we've known for a long time that the universe is expanding. But about 15 years ago, my colleagues and I discovered that it is expanding faster and faster. That is, the universe is accelerating, and that was not expected, but it is now attributed to this mysterious stuff called dark energy...

SAGAL: All right.

RIESS: ...which seems to make up about 70 percent of the universe.

SAGAL: But we have no idea why? Could it be that they're fleeing us?


SAGAL: Could it be that they've seen, like, "Toddlers and Tiaras," and they're like, "let's get away from those guys"?


RIESS: Right. It's tempting to think that. But what we've learned about the universe, wherever you are in the universe, it looks like everything is fleeing from you.

SAGAL: Really?

RIESS: Yeah.

SAGAL: So it's not me? I was worried.

PAULA POUNDSTONE: Yeah, honestly.

LUKE BURBANK: Dr. Riess, just a kind of serious question because I'm kind of an amateur student of astronomy, how hard was it for you guys to blow up the Death Star?


RIESS: Well, when you turn the Hubble Space Telescope around to focus to the sun's light on it, it's not too hard.

SAGAL: Really? That was brilliant.



SAGAL: I mean isn't it bizarre thought to find out that 73 percent of the observable universe is actually invisible; we have no idea what it is?

RIESS: You know, it's not just the 73 percent, it's the other, there's a 25 percent chunk in there called "Dark Matter." We don't know what that stuff is either. So...

SAGAL: Well wait a minute, 73 percent of the universe...

P.J. O'ROURKE: Plus.

SAGAL: So you're telling use that everything that we see in the universe when we look out and we see all these galaxies and all this stuff out there, that's 3 percent?

RIESS: That's right. We're really just the frosting on a cake and we don't know what's inside the cake.

SAGAL: I don't know about you but this makes me want to curl up in a ball and weep.


SAGAL: I thought I was insignificant already but this is getting worse.

RIESS: Well we do have names for everything and that's important.

SAGAL: Okay.


POUNDSTONE: Why? They're not going to...


POUNDSTONE: Why is it important to have names for everything? They're not going to come when you call it.


POUNDSTONE: What made you want to be a physicist?

SAGAL: Well, technically you're an astrophysicist, right?

POUNDSTONE: Oh, an astrophysicist, sorry.

RIESS: Right. That was just an insult before.

POUNDSTONE: I know. I'm sorry. I'm sorry.


POUNDSTONE: No, and I knew that. Geez. Okay, so what made you want to be an astrophysicist?

RIESS: I think the mystery of what's out there in the universe is just very compelling.

SAGAL: But you made the mystery bigger.

O'ROURKE: And hence, more compelling.

RIESS: I gave it a name, though, as I said.

SAGAL: That's true.



SAGAL: So tell us, Adam, about what this week's been like. How did you find out you won the Nobel?

RIESS: Well, around 5:30 you get a call from Swedish sounding people.


RIESS: And unless you ordered some Ikea furniture recently, you expect it's probably the Nobel Prize.


SAGAL: Well, Dr. Adam Riess, Nobel Prize winner, we've asked you here to play a game we're calling?

KASELL: Hello?


KASELL: Hello? Are you there? Hello?


SAGAL: You're so tentative. Yes, hello?


SAGAL: No, that was the name of the game; see.



SAGAL: Because we wanted to pay a small tribute to the man who invented the iPhone, who passed away this week. So, we're going to go back in time to speak about another great innovator in cell phones, the guy who invented the cell phone.

Back in 1973, inventor Martin Cooper of Motorola placed the first modern cell phone call on a Motorola product that he invented in New York City. We're going to ask you three questions about that historic day. Get at least two right, you'll win our prize for one of our listeners, Carl's voice on their voicemail. Ready to do this?

RIESS: Sure.

SAGAL: All right. Carl, who is Adam Riess playing for?

KASELL: Peter, he is playing for Steven Drews of Lapeer, Michigan.

SAGAL: All right, here's your first question. Now that first cell phone call was the result of many, many years and lots of money sunk into engineering and research.

To celebrate his team's achievement, Dr. Cooper placed that first call to whom? A: this is wife, to say he was stuck and would be home late? B: to his mother, to apologize for not having called in five years? Or C: to his rival at another company, to rub it in?


RIESS: Hmm. I am going to have to go with C.

SAGAL: You're going to go with C, to his rival?

RIESS: Yeah.

SAGAL: You'd be correct.



SAGAL: Mr. Cooper, as I said, worked for Motorola. He called the head of Bell Lab's cell phone project. The call was not transcribed, but we believe it went something like nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah-nyah.


SAGAL: Next question, the first cell phone had a battery that only lasted twenty minutes, but Dr. Cooper said that was not a problem. Why not? A: it was so heavy your arm would give out before the battery did.


SAGAL: B: you could buy spare batteries from Motorola for only $350 each. Or C: quote, "I can't imagine anyone will ever want to use one of these for more than twenty minutes a day, right?"

RIESS: I'm going to go with B.

SAGAL: You're going to go with B; you could buy spare batteries at the bargain price of $350?

RIESS: Yeah.


SAGAL: You're going to second-guess this guy?


SAGAL: Nobel Prize, people. Is that your final choice, B?

RIESS: Yeah.

SAGAL: I'm afraid you're incorrect. He said, Dr. Cooper said that the battery didn't matter because it was so heavy your arm would give out before the battery did.



SAGAL: The thing weighed two and a half pounds. Imagine holding a quart of milk to your head, about the size, shape and weight.

POUNDSTONE: What do you mean imagine?


BURBANK: It's called a hangover, Peter.

SAGAL: This is how Paula tries to find the missing children. Where are you?


SAGAL: Come in.


SAGAL: All right, this is exciting. You have one more question to go. You get this right you win it all.

All right, also on that day, Dr. Cooper was the first person to do something on a cell phone that millions of people do to this day. What was it? A: he used the bathroom while talking on the phone and lied about it?


SAGAL: B: he pretended he couldn't hear somebody he didn't want to talk to anymore?


SAGAL: Or C: he almost got killed while crossing the street and talking on the phone?

RIESS: I'm going to have to go with C.

SAGAL: You're going to go with C; almost got killed crossing the street?

RIESS: Sure.

SAGAL: You're right.




SAGAL: They did the demonstration on the streets of New York, and he said, quote, "I made numerous calls, including one where I crossed the street while talking to a New York radio reporter, probably one of the more dangerous things I have ever done in my life," unquote. Carl, how did Dr. Adam Riess do on our quiz?

KASELL: He's a winner here, Peter. He had two correct answers, so he wins for Steven Drews.

SAGAL: Well done.

POUNDSTONE: All right.


SAGAL: Adam Riess is a professor of astronomy and physics at Johns Hopkins University. He is as of this week a Nobel Laureate in physics. Dr. Adam Riess, thank you so much for joining us on WAIT WAIT...DON'T TELL ME!


RIESS: Thank you.


RIESS: Thank you.

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