The Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) team, led by Charles L. Bennett, a professor in Hopkins’s Physics and Astronomy Department, was recently awarded the 2012 Gruber Cosmology Prize. The award was presented in recognition of their contributions to the Standard Cosmological Model, which helped transform the field of cosmology from “appealing scenario into precise science.”
Indeed, the work of the WMAP team in observing and analyzing light has provided cosmologists with exceptionally specific measurements regarding the origin, age, content, and geometry of the universe. For this, Dr. Bennett was given a gold medal and the team, an award of $500,000, at the August 21 meeting of the International Astronomical Union in Beijing.
More specifically, Bennett’s team has been working on unraveling the properties of the Universe: its origin, age, history, content, and shape. As Dr. Bennett puts it, “The question that most fascinates me is, ‘How did the universe begin?’” Their research also encompasses such topics as the big bang theory, dark matter, and dark energy.
The papers published by the WMAP team have “had an enormous impact,” Bennett says – in fact, their papers are the most cited in the world. “This is because WMAP’s findings form the underpinning for almost all studies of the universe today.”
WMAP’s findings are so precise and influential that they are now collectively known as the Standard Cosmological Model. The satellite, which was launched in 2001, has released data in intervals beginning in 2003. The final set will be released in late 2012. The latest of these findings, released in 2011, showed that the universe is within 1 percent of 13.75 billion years old and that it consists of only 4.6 percent ‘ordinary’ matter, 22.7 percent dark matter and 72.8 percent dark energy.
In addition, as many theorists had predicted, the universe was confirmed to have undergone a period of inflation in the first trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second of existence, and (to within 0.6 percent) was also shown to be flat in geometry.
The mission’s name – Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe – was adopted in honor of David Wilkinson. Wilkinson worked on the properties of the cosmic glow of microwaves from the early universe for 30 years, training most of the people in that field.
He and Bennett worked together on the NASA Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) space mission, and wanted to work together on the follow-up mission as well. Sadly, Wilkinson died from cancer after the launch, prompting the team to petition to name the mission in his honor.
Bennett’s enthusiasm about his work is infectious. “It’s a bit like a mystery novel and a crossword puzzle,” he explained. “By getting one clue at a time, we can begin to understand what’s happening. Piecing together the evidence, we are getting to know the big-scale properties of our universe like our back yard.”
However, unsurprisingly, his research also involves significant challenges. A crossword puzzle may be enjoyable, but all of the clues need to fit together to make it work; in this way, his research is like the most intricate of puzzles.
“This means coming up with the best ideas and approaches, explaining it all clearly in successful proposals for funding, and then building instruments, observing the skies, analyzing the data and publishing the results. The challenge is that all of this must work, not just most of it,” Bennett clarified.
Clearly, the team has met this challenge, and the Gruber Prize attests to this. “I was stunned and it took a minute for me to take it in,” Bennett remarked on learning that he and his team had won the prize. “Then I was, of course, very happy. The WMAP team worked hard for many years. Very, very hard. So it feels nice and is rewarding to see the science appreciated – that the effort was not in vain.”