June 25, 2012

JHU’s Bennett and WMAP team awarded Gruber Cosmology Prize

Astronomers' findings form foundation of Standard Cosmological Model

The Gruber Foundation announced June 20 that the 2012 Cosmology Prize will be awarded to Johns Hopkins University Professor Charles L. Bennett and the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe space mission science team that he led.

Bennett and the WMAP team are being recognized by the foundation for their transformative study of an ancient light dating back to the infant universe. So precise and accurate are the WMAP results that they form the foundation of the Standard Cosmological Model.

Bennett and the 26-member team will share the $500,000 prize. A gold medal will be presented to Bennett at the International Astronomical Union meeting in Beijing on Aug. 21, and he will deliver a lecture the following day.

“It is tremendously exciting to be recognized with the Gruber Cosmology Prize,” said Bennett, the Alumni Centennial Professor of Physics and Astronomy and Gilman Scholar in the Henry A. Rowland Department of Physics and Astronomy in Johns Hopkins’ Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. “I have been very fortunate to work with the talented and fine people of the WMAP team, and I am particularly delighted that our entire science team has been honored with this prestigious award.”

Under Bennett’s direction, the WMAP mission determined with unprecedented precision the age, shape (WMAP nailed down the curvature of space to within 0.6 percent of conventional Euclidean geometry), composition and history of the universe from the first-ever, exquisitely detailed full-sky “baby picture” of the universe, dating from when it was only 378,000 years old—13.75 billion years ago. Using this picture, the team determined that the universe consists of 72.8 percent dark energy, 22.7 percent dark matter and 4.6 percent atoms. The team also concluded that the first stars formed when the universe was only about 400 million years old. The WMAP data substantiated key predictions of the cosmic inflation paradigm that describes the first trillionth of a trillionth of a second of the universe, while at the same time ruling out some specific implementations of the theory. WMAP data also place limits on the mass of the neutrino (an elementary particle with no electrical charge and which travels at almost the speed of light) and provide evidence for primordial helium, consistent with big bang theory predictions.

“Chuck Bennett and the WMAP team put the ‘precision’ in the new field of precision cosmology and set the ‘standard’ for the Standard Cosmological Model,” said fellow Johns Hopkins astrophysicist Adam Riess, who shared the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics, as well as the Gruber Prize in 2007, for his finding that the expansion of the universe is accelerating.

The annual Gruber Cosmology Prize recognizes “fundamental advances in our understanding of the universe,” according to the foundation’s website. The Cosmology Prize is co-sponsored by the International Astronomical Union and aims to acknowledge and encourage further exploration.

This is the second time that Bennett has been honored by the Gruber Foundation. In 2006, the prize was awarded to NASA’s John Mather and the Cosmic Background Explorer team, of which Bennett was a member.

The WMAP team honored this year includes Johns Hopkins associate research scientists David Larson and Janet Weiland. Throughout his career, Bennett has made significant contributions to the knowledge of cosmology through pioneering measurements of the cosmic background radiation, the oldest light in the universe and a remnant of the hot, young universe. For this research, Bennett has received many previous accolades, including the 2010 Shaw Prize, 2009 Comstock Prize in Physics, 2006 Harvey Prize, 2005 Draper Medal, 1992 and 2004 NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Award and 2003 NASA Outstanding Leadership Award.


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