Astronomer shares $3M physics Breakthrough Prize

Rachel Bean, professor of astronomy and senior associate dean of undergraduate education for the College of Arts and Sciences, is among a team of 27 scientists who won a share of the $3 million 2018 Breakthrough Prize in fundamental physics Dec. 3.

Bean served on NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) satellite team, which observed cosmic microwave background radiation to help understand the early universe.

The Breakthrough Prize committee cited the team “for detailed maps of the early universe that greatly improved our knowledge of the evolution of the cosmos and the fluctuations that seeded the formation of galaxies.”

Accepting the award were team leaders Charles L. Bennett, Johns Hopkins University; Gary Hinshaw, University of British Columbia; and Princeton University’s Norman Jarosik, Lyman Page Jr. and David N. Spergel.

“It was a truly amazing experience to be a member of the WMAP science team. The team was a small one in comparison to many other astronomical collaborations, so we all got work together in person to analyze WMAP’s picture of the earliest light in our universe,” said Bean, after learning of the latest award. “WMAP data profoundly improved our understanding of the universe’s evolution, right back to what it was like a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang.”

The WMAP group won the Gruber Prize in 2012 and its research was selected as Breakthrough of the Year 2003 by the journal Science. “WMAP is the instrument that finally allowed scientists to hear the celestial music and figure out what sort of instrument our cosmos is,” wrote journalist Charles Seife in Science. “The universe is only 4 percent ordinary matter, the stuff of stars and trees and people. Twenty-three percent is exotic matter: dark mass that astrophysicists believe is made up of an as-yet-detected particle. And the remainder, 73 percent, is dark energy.”

Since its inception in 2012, the Breakthrough Prize has awarded close to $200 million to honor key research in physics, the life sciences and mathematics.

“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 Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook and a co-founder of the Breakthrough Prize. “The world needs their inspiration.”

This story also appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.

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