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WMAP Team (CITAzen Mike Nolta) Awarded Gruber Prize

Charles L. Bennett and the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) team that includes CITA Research Associate, Mike Nolta, are the recipients of the 2012 Gruber Cosmology Prize. Their observations and analyses of ancient light have provided the unprecedentedly rigorous measurements of the age, content, geometry, and origin of the universe that now comprise the Standard Cosmological Model.

The Prize citation further recognizes that the exquisite specificity of these results has helped transform cosmology itself from “appealing scenario into precise science.”

Bennett and the WMAP team will receive the $500,000 award, and Bennett will receive a gold medal, at the International Astronomical Union meeting in Beijing on August 21.

Bennett, a professor of physics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins University, stresses the team nature of the collaboration. “There are so many heroes who stand up at just the right time and make something happen,” Bennett says, “and they all deserve credit for that.”

Modern cosmology was born in 1916 with Einstein’s relativity theory. In the 1920s Alexander Friedmann and Georges Lemaître each found that Einstein’s theory implies that the universe should be evolving. Incorporating data on the velocities of galaxies by the astronomer Vesto Slipher, Lemaître gave the form of a universal expansion with distance from Einstein’s theory of relativity and in 1929 Hubble presented data that galaxies are receding from us at rates directly proportional to their distances—the farther, the faster. The expanding universe gave rise to the Big Bang theory. (Contrary to common usage, the “Big Bang Theory” technically describes the expansion and cooling of the universe from a hot and dense early state, not to an initial explosive event.)

One of the theoretical consequences of the Big Bang interpretation is that when the universe was 378,000 years old, it would have cooled enough for the fog of electrons to be swept up into neutral hydrogen atoms so photons could decouple and go their separate ways. At that moment, the fog lifted so the photons we see today constitute a sort of snapshot of that moment the light broke free (as when we look at the bottom of a cloud) —a “baby picture” of the universe—though after all this time the expansion of space would have stretched the light from the image all the way into the microwave end of the electromagnetic spectrum. In 1948, Ralph Alpher, Robert Herman, and George Gamow calculated the Big Bang prediction of the abundances of the light elements and they predicted that the universe should be filled with a cosmic microwave background radiation. Then, in 1964, two Bell Laboratories astronomers discovered the cosmic microwave background—a nearly uniform glow suffusing all of space.

Other members of the WMAP team are: Chris Barnes, Rachel Bean, Olivier Dore, Joanna Dunkley, Benjamin M. Gold, Michael Greason, Mark Halpern, Robert Hill, Gary F. Hinshaw, Norman Jarosik, Alan Kogut, Eiichiro Komatsu, David Larson, Michele Limon, Stephan S. Meyer, Michael R. Nolta, Nils Odegard, Lyman Page, Hiranya V. Peiris, Kendrick Smith, David N. Spergel, Greg S. Tucker, Licia Verde, Janet L. Weiland, Edward Wollack, and Edward L. (Ned) Wright.

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The full article can be found here.

Faculty of Arts & Science News

U of T News: The Bulletin

For further information regarding the Gruber Prize and the Gruber Foundation, please see

Published: June 22, 2012