Johns Hopkins University astrophysicist Charles L. Bennett was awarded the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics on Sunday for his research on the universe’s origin and expansion.
Bennett led a team of researchers that collaborated with NASA to build and launch NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe space telescope. Over more than a decade, they mapped the universe’s early moments and advanced scientific understanding about the makeup of the universe and how it has expanded over time.
“We do this because of curiosity,” Bennett said. “It’s fun to do, it’s fun to see the results coming out. Having it recognized is the icing on the cake.”
The prize was one of seven announced during a televised awards ceremony in California Sunday evening. The 27-member team will share $3 million.
The Breakthrough Prizes, now in their sixth year, recognize advances in physics, life sciences and mathematics. The awards were founded by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, a graduate of the University of Maryland; venture capital investors Yuri and Julia Milner; Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, and Anne Wojcicki, CEO of the personal genomics company 23andMe.
“The Breakthrough Prize was created to celebrate the achievements of scientists, physicists, and mathematicians, whose genius help us understand our world, and whose advances shape our future,” said Zuckerberg, in a statement. “The world needs their inspiration, and their reminder that even though it doesn’t always feel that way, we are making steady progress toward building a better future for everyone.
Sunday’s ceremony featured celebrities from music, film and sports, including former Raven John Urschel and Olympic swimmer Katie Ledecky
Bennett and his team launched their project with NASA in 2001 with the goal of answering basic questions about the universe’s composition.
“It may seem like there’s no way us tiny humans on the planet could answer questions about the universe as a whole,” Bennett said.
The group released its first findings in 2003 and its final results a decade later, in 2013.
Among the group’s discoveries was that less than 5 percent of the universe is atoms, the basic units that make up everything on earth. The group also made important discoveries about dark matter and dark energy in the universe.
The research became the basis for what is known as the “standard model” of cosmology, the study of the universe’s origin and evolution.
“With WMAP we answered a lot of age-old questions,” Bennett said. “That story is not over.”
Since the WMAP project concluded, Bennett has been working with a team of researchers and Hopkins students on a project that builds on his earlier work.
The group is building and stationing four telescopes in Northern Chile to observe very faint microwave signals from across the universe to better understand what happened when the universe was formed. Northern Chile’s high altitude and location along the equator will give the team an exceptional view, Bennett said.
The first of the telescopes has been operating for about a year and a half, he said. The second should be installed soon, and the third will go live in 2018.
Bennett has dedicated his career to studying the universe.
Before joining Hopkins in 2005 as a professor of physics and astronomy, he worked as an astrophysicist with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center from 1984 to 2004. He led the Goddard infrared astrophysics branch from 1994 to 2000.
His work has been recognized with several awards, including the Gruber Cosmology Prize, the Shaw Prize in Astronomy, the Comstock Prize in Physics and the Harvey Prize.
Bennett said he is amazed at how much he and other researchers have been able to learn.