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Johns Hopkins astrophysicist receives prestigious award for experiment that ‘transformed our view of the universe’

A Johns Hopkins University astrophysicist was awarded one of the oldest scientific prizes in the United States in recognition of an experiment he led that transformed humanity’s view of the universe.

The American Academy of Arts & Sciences bestowed the Rumford Prize, which traces its origins to 1796, upon Charles L. Bennett, a professor in the university’s department of physics and astronomy. The award places him in the company of recipients such as inventor Thomas Edison, scientist Edwin Land, who invented instant photography, and Enrico Fermi, the physicist who created the first nuclear reactor.


In its nomination, the academy credited Bennett with advancing humankind’s understanding of the universe through the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, Johns Hopkins University said in a news release. The NASA space experiment led by Bennett allowed astronomers to unveil the most detailed picture ever of the infant universe, a picture dating to 380,000 years after the Big Bang.

David Oxtoby, president of the American Academy, in a statement credited Bennett’s work for bringing cosmology, the study of the properties of the universe as a whole, from the fringes of science “into an integral component in the quest for the fundamental laws of physics.”


“His trailblazing work gives us an unprecedented, precise view of the universe, and more importantly, reminds us of the joys and possibilities of scientific discovery,” Oxtoby said.

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In a statement, Bennett, who holds a joint appointment at Hopkins’ Applied Physics Laboratory, said it was an honor to receive the award and to be counted among the scientists previously recognized with it.

Charles L. Bennett, an astrophysicist from Johns Hopkins University was awarded the Rumford Prize, one of the oldest scientific prizes in the United States, in recognition of an experiment he led which transformed humanity’s view of the universe.

“There has never been a guarantee that cosmologists or astrophysicists would come to understand the universe, but we have collectively made incredible discoveries in recent decades,” Bennett said. “I am thankful that I was able to contribute to this progress, grateful to my collaborators, and ever excited to see what mysteries of the universe we might unveil next.”

According to the university, three Johns Hopkins scientists won the award before Bennett: Henry A. Rowland, the first chair of the physics department, in 1883; Robert W. Wood, a professor of optical physics for the first half of the 20th century, in 1909, and in 1965 William D. McElroy, a biology department chair who discovered the enzyme that makes firefly bioluminescence.

Bennett, a Bloomberg Distinguished and Alumni Centennial Professor, led the groundbreaking NASA mission from 1996 to 2013. He joined the university in 2005. He is now testing the model of cosmology his experiment established and exploring cosmological mysteries like dark matter and dark energy, according to the university.

“In his fearless pursuit of questions and ideas that challenged convention, Chuck stands alongside a select few investigators who have truly transformed our understanding of our universe,” Johns Hopkins University President Ron Daniels said in a statement. “We are thrilled at the prospect of the discoveries he will continue to make and the pathways of inquiry he has opened for future generations of physicists.”

Bennett’s research in the university’s physics and astronomy department could benefit from the $50 million donation from Baltimore investor Bill Miller announced in December.

The professor is expected to accept the Rumford Prize and deliver remarks at a virtual event Feb. 10 hosted by the American Academy, according to the university.