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CC Physics Professor Searched for Supernovae with Nobel Winner

When the Nobel Prize in physics was announced Tuesday, Shane Burns, Colorado College physics professor, shared the special elation of knowing a great deal about the work that went into the award.

Burns is one of a small group of people, including Nobel winner Saul Perlmutter, who began the work that resulted in the 1998 discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe. Burns has continued to work with the group, now known as the Supernova Cosmology Project, since its inception in 1989.

Burns and Perlmutter searched for supernovae, which are massive exploding stars, when they were graduate students in the 1980s at the University of California at Berkeley. Burns fell in love with teaching and came to Colorado College in 2000, while Perlmutter remained at Berkeley, where he is a professor of physics.

With Perlmutter the “undisputed leader” of the group that became the Supernova Cosmology Project, Burns worked with as many as 30 other scientists to observe supernovae. He is a co-author of the team’s most recent paper, published in June 2010 in the Astrophysical Journal.   They were in intense competition with another supernova research team, whose two leaders shared the Nobel Prize with Perlmutter.

Using time on the Hubble space telescope, Burns worked on the project by studying the infrared brightness of supernovae during the summers and blocks off from Colorado College.  Some of his calculations were done on a high-powered Mac workstation on his office desk in Barnes Science Center, in contrast to his work two decades earlier on the largest computer at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the PDP1144, a behemoth the size of a washer-dryer combination with a fraction of the capacity of his current desktop computer.

One summer in Berkeley, Burns brought in a Colorado College physics student, Katy-Robin Garton ‘01, who did measurements for the project.  Garton and Burns are co-authors, with several others in the Supernova Cosmology Project, of a 2003 paper published in the Astrophysical Journal.  Garton lives in Missoula, Mont., and is a documentary filmmaker.

“It was beautiful science,” said Garton, who remembers the project for its elegance and accessibility.

Brian P. Schmidt and Adam G. Riess, leader of a competing supernova research team, shared the Nobel Prize with Perlmutter.

Burns lives in Colorado Springs with his wife, Stormy, a staff assistant in the music department. They have two children.