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Johns Hopkins Astrophysicist Shares $3 Million Breakthrough Prize

December 3, 2017
CONTACT: Arthur Hirsch
Office: 443-997-9909
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ahirsch6@jhu.edu @JHUmediareps

Bloomberg Distinguished Professor Charles L. Bennett of Johns Hopkins University has been named a recipient of the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for his work that established the Standard Model of Cosmology – a precise physics-based description of the contents, dynamics, and shape of the universe. Bennett was the leader of the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) space mission. The entire mission Science Team will share the $3 million prize.

Bennett will receive the award, the most lucrative prize in science, at a black-tie ceremony on Sunday night in Palo Alto, California that will unfold less like a typical science awards event and a bit more like the Academy Awards, including a red carpet entrance and celebrities including actor Morgan Freeman, actress Kerry Washington and filmmaker Ron Howard.

The Hollywood touch in the ceremony is part of an effort to draw public interest to science by the Breakthrough Prize, which was established by, among others, the founders of Google and Facebook. Bennett said he’s all for that, especially if it encourages young people to pursue science, even if the ceremony will be out of his usual experience.

“It’s been a long time since I chatted with Ron Howard — as in never,” said Bennett. “It’s so overwhelming.”

Using WMAP, a NASA project that launched in 2001 and switched off in 2010, Bennett and his team provided the first-ever, detailed, full-sky, “baby picture” of the universe when it was only 380,000 years old. The patterns in this picture provided precise answers to many longstanding questions about our universe.

“The WMAP mission took us far beyond our physical reach. By carefully measuring the oldest light in the universe we determined the key properties of our universe,” Bennett said. “We are humbled but pleased that our research has been recognized by the Breakthrough Prize Foundation.”

Charles L. Bennett

WMAP is widely recognized as being transformational by turning a collection of loose facts into a highly constrained model of the universe: the Standard Model of Cosmology. Bennett received the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal for his role as the Principal Investigator of WMAP.

“We are immensely proud of Chuck Bennett,” said Ronald J. Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins University, who was in California to celebrate Bennett’s win. “Chuck and his WMAP team’s discoveries are both galactic and humbling in their significance for science and humanity. They inspire awe and ignite the imaginations of so many –particularly young scientists – with a passion to understand how our universe began and where it is headed.”

Bennett is the third member of the Johns Hopkins faculty to receive the Breakthrough Prize since it was first awarded in 2012. Bert Vogelstein, of Johns Hopkins Medicine, received the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences in 2013 for his work on cancer genomics and tumor suppressor genes. In 2014, Bloomberg Distinguished Professor Thomas J. Barber Professor in Space Studies, and Nobel prize winner Adam Riess received the Breakthrough Fundamental Physics Award for discovery of the acceleration of the universe.

Bennett’s team used the sky map to determine that the age of the universe is 13.8 billion years, and that the universe is comprised of only 5 percent atoms, with an additional 25 percent of dark matter, which exhibits gravity but gives off no light. A whopping 70 percent of the universe was measured by WMAP to be dark energy. Dark energy acts as antigravity and seems to be consistent with the “cosmological constant” introduced by Albert Einstein. Presumably this dark energy is responsible for the current accelerated expansion of the universe.

Janet Weiland, a Johns Hopkins University research scientist, also will share in the prize, as will two former Johns Hopkins University post-doctoral fellows who worked with Bennett, David Larson and Ben Gold.

Awards in physics, life sciences and mathematics are to be presented in a ceremony Sunday night at the NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley.

The ceremony will be hosted by Freeeman, and is to feature a performance by hip hop artist and entrepreneur Wiz Khalifa with musician Nana Ou-Yang. Howard and Washington, as well as actress Mila Kunis and actor and investor Ashton Kutcher are scheduled to serve as presenters.

The ceremony will broadcast live on National Geographic starting at 10 p.m. Eastern Time. For the first time, the presentation will be streamed live on the Facebook and YouTube platforms of the Breakthrough Prize.

The Breakthrough Prizes were founded by Yuri Milner, an entrepreneur and philanthropist, and his wife, Julie; Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google; Anne Wojcicki, the founder of the genetics company 23andMe; and Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, and his wife Priscilla Chan. The innovators established the prize to celebrate the world’s great science and math minds and to generate excitement about the pursuit of the two fields as a career.

Selection committees composed of previous Breakthrough Prize recipients choose the new laureates.

Bennett will add the Breakthrough Prize to his long list of science awards recognizing his work in cosmology. His previous awards include the 2017 Isaac Newton Medal and Prize, the 2015 Caterina Tomassoni and Felice Pietro Chisesi Prize, the 2013 Jansky Prize, the 2012 Gruber Cosmology Prize, the 2010 Shaw Prize, the 2009 Comstock Prize in Physics; the 2006 Harvey Prize; the 2006 Gruber Cosmology Prize, the 2005 Henry Draper Medal, and the 2003 John C. Lindsay Memorial Award. Bennett is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a Fellow of the American Physical Society. Bennett is also the Alumni Centennial Professor of Physics and Astronomy and a Gilman Scholar at Johns Hopkins University.


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