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UBC Researchers Share in Cosmology's Most Prestigious Prize


UBC Physics and Astronomy professor Mark Halpern (pictured) is one of the researchers sharing the 2012 Gruber Cosmology Prize.

June 20, 2012

Two UBC researchers have been awarded the 2012 Gruber Cosmology Prize for their work as part of a 2003 NASA mission that pinpointed the age of the Universe at 13.75 billion years.

UBC Physics and Astronomy professors Mark Halpern and Gary Hinshaw will share the $500,000 award with NASA Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) lead Charles Bennett and other colleagues from the team.

The WMAP' team’s observations and analyses of ancient light cast off by the birth of the Universe provided unprecedentedly rigorous measurements of its age, content, geometry and origin. The findings and data--still being released in two-year increments a decade later--are so precise that WMAP’s version of the universe is now referred to as the Standard Cosmological Model.

"Humans have always been curious about our origins,” says Hinshaw, Canada Research Chair in Observational Cosmology and a recent recruit to UBC from NASA. “The idea that we can actually begin to answer so many profound questions through painstaking measurements of our sky is almost miraculous."

Added Halpern: "It's an amazing treat that the dynamics of the universe have been printed on the sky for all to see."

Science magazine awarded WMAP its Breakthrough of the Year honor in 2003: “All the arguments of the last few decades about the basic properties of the universe—its age, its expansion rate, its composition, its density—have been settled in one fell swoop.”

Among other findings, the mission helped researchers determine that the Universe:

  • Is within 1 percent of 13.75 billion years old
  • Consists of 22.7 percent dark matter, 72.8 percent dark energy, and only 4.6 percent ordinary matter
  • Underwent a period of 'inflation' in the first trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second of its existence
  • Has a flat geometry, to within 0.6 percent

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.”

Other members of the WMAP team are: Chris Barnes, Rachel Bean, Olivier Doré, Joanna Dunkley, Benjamin M. Gold, Michael Greason, Robert Hill, 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.

The Gruber International Prize Program honors individuals in the fields of cosmology, genetics and neuroscience, whose groundbreaking work provides new models that inspire and enable fundamental shifts in knowledge and culture.

The cosmology prize honors a leading cosmologist, astronomer, astrophysicist or scientific philosopher for theoretical, analytical, conceptual or observational discoveries leading to fundamental advances in our understanding of the universe.

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