Johns Hopkins University professor Charles L. Bennett has been awarded the Gruber Foundation's annual cosmology prize for research he led that formed the foundation for what scientists know about the makeup, origins and expansion of the universe.
Bennett led a team of two dozen researchers from across the country and globe that used NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe to study what conditions were like about 380,000 years after the birth of the universe. The probe launched in 2001, scanned space until 2010 for data on microwave radiation, said to be a remnant of the "big bang" that scientists say marked the birth of the universe.
Bennett's team used the data for a series of discoveries, including that atoms make up less than 5 percent of the universe and that the first stars in the universe formed when it was about 400 million years old. The team's findings provided the most precise estimate of the universe's age to date and also helped substantiate predictions tied to the Big Bang Theory.
What merited the prize, Bennett said, was the general acceptance the discoveries have gained since the team first started releasing them in 2003. The findings form the basis of what has become known as the "standard model" of cosmology, the study of the universe's birth and expansion.
"To evaluate its impact, it just takes a little time," Bennett said. "The acceptance, which has always been high, has only gotten stronger and the impact of it has only gotten stronger. It has clearly stood the test of time, which is appropriate for a major prize."
Bennett and the 26-member team share a $500,000 award for winning the prize. He will accept it and deliver an address at an International Astronomical Union meeting in Beijing in August.
The Gruber Foundation honors excellence in five fields each year: cosmology, genetics, neuroscience, justice and women's rights. It is funded and managed by philanthropists Peter and Patricia Gruber in St. Thomas, United States Virgin Islands.
The last time a Hopkins professor received the prize was in 2007 when a team that included astrophysicist Adam Riess was honored.
"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," Riess said in a news release.
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