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Johns Hopkins Physicists Receive $1.3 Million Grant to Study the Early Universe

September 23, 2013
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Three Johns Hopkins University theoretical physicists have received a $1.3 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation to develop new ideas for the origin of the universe and alternative ways to test those ideas.

The grant, awarded last month, will also be used to support a post-doctoral program for young scientists in theoretical research as well as to create a visitors program to bring notable scientists in the field to the university to collaborate with researchers.

Marc Kamionkowski, a professor of cosmology and particle physics in the university’s Physics and Astronomy Department, will lead a team of theoretical physicists in a research project studying the origins of the universe. The research is funded by a $1.3 million grant awarded by the Johns Templeton Foundation. Photo credit: Will Kirk/homewoodphoto.jhu.edu

The project will be led by Marc Kamionkowski, a professor of cosmology and particle physics, in the university’s Physics and Astronomy Department in the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. Co-leaders on the project are Alex Szalay, the Alumni Centennial Professor, and Joseph Silk, the Homewood Professor, also faculty members in the department.

The John Templeton Foundation supports research on subjects ranging from complexity, evolution, and infinity to creativity, forgiveness, love, and free will. The organization encourages civil, informed dialogue among scientists, philosophers and theologians and between such experts and the public at large, for the purposes of definitional clarity and new insights.

The Templeton grant, which is for three years, will fund six post-doctoral scientists at the university. Kamionkowski said the first year of the grant will support three current Johns Hopkins cosmology postdocs. This fall, a search will be initiated to recruit three new post-docs to join the program in fall 2014.

“A post-doctoral program is an essential step in the training of a young scientist in physics and astronomy,” Kamionkowski said. “Post-docs have the expertise in the field already acquired during graduate school, and they are free of any teaching or committee responsibilities.  They can thus focus all their efforts on research.”

Kamionkowski said that the program will not only support young researchers but allow them the opportunity to work on a project with distinguished senior faculty at Johns Hopkins and with visitors. The components of the visitors program are still being fleshed out, but Kamionkowski said he foresees established senior scientists spending up to a month on campus working with students and post-docs in the university’s program, collaborating on answering questions around the central theme of the early universe.

Of particular interest to the researchers is inflation. Current measurements suggest that the Big Bang began with inflation, or a period of very rapid expansion, that provided the initial conditions for the evolution of the universe and for the growth of stars, galaxies, and clusters of galaxies within it. The scientists will try to understand the new physics responsible for inflation, what set inflation in motion, and what, if anything, happened before inflation.

“The Templeton Foundation is interested in addressing the big questions and I think everyone would agree the beginning of the universe is a big question,” Kamionkowski said.

The goal of the post-doctoral program is to pursue research and publish papers in recognized journals based on the collaborative work of the senior faculty, post-docs and visitors.  The scientists hope to develop innovative observational tests of new early-universe scenarios, conduct numerical simulations of the growth of structure in the universe, and apply new statistical tests to cosmological data.

Examples of such tests include subtle correlations in the distribution of matter in the universe.  It is now established that there are correlations of the kind predicted by inflation, but Kamionkowski said he and his collaborators are interested in knowing whether there are even more subtle patterns in the matter distribution.

Kamionkowski, who has mentored more than 20 post-docs, said he welcomes the opportunity to offer more collaborative experiences for young scientists and work with researchers outside of Johns Hopkins

“Scientists do work collaboratively,” he said. “There’s this impression that we all lock ourselves away while we’re solving some big problem. In reality, we’re sort of like jazz musicians, each playing off of each other.  This grant will facilitate this type of interaction for a number of scientists.”

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