Princeton scientists share $3 million physics prize for mapping the early universe

Thirteen past and present Princeton University researchers have been awarded the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for their maps of the early universe.

Norman Jarosik, Lyman Page Jr. and David Spergel were honored on Dec. 3 for their pioneering work on the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, the NASA satellite known as WMAP. They received their honors at NASA Ames Research Center in Palo Alto, California at an awards ceremony Sunday evening. The trio shares the $3 million prize with Charles Bennett of Johns Hopkins University, Gary Hinshaw of the University of British Columbia, and the other 22 members of the WMAP team, which includes Joanna Dunkley, a Princeton professor of physics and astrophysical sciences, and nine former Princeton postdoctoral researchers and graduate students.

“Somehow, we seem to have done it,” Spergel said in a video presented during the awards program. “We think we understand the physics that happened in the universe’s first moments.”

Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber attended the event with the three physicists.

“Norman Jarosik, Lyman Page Jr. and David Spergel are brilliant physicists whose research has transformed our understanding of the age, shape, and evolution of the universe,” Eisgruber said. “Their pioneering work has illuminated some of the most challenging topics in astrophysics, yielding dazzling insights that continue to shape the field today. I am grateful for their contributions to the Princeton community, and I am thrilled that they have been recognized with this well-deserved honor.”

The physics award was presented by Sam Altman, the president of the startup company seed funder Y Combinator, and Mayim Bialik, a neuroscientist and star of TV’s “Big Bang Theory.”

The experiment to measure the cosmic microwave background radiation — the signature of the Big Bang — began at Princeton more than a decade ago and involved a team of Princeton University contributors, including cosmologist David Wilkinson and the late physicist Robert Dicke. Originally known as MAP, the satellite was renamed WMAP to honor Wilkinson, who died in 2002.

NASA launched the WMAP satellite in 2001 toward the second Lagrange point of the Earth-Sun system, one of the two spots where Earth and the sun exert equal gravitational pulls on an object, located about a million miles from Earth. From there, the satellite scanned the universe, mapping out tiny temperature fluctuations across the sky.

“To my surprise, we saw what we expected to see. With WMAP, the tools we had were good enough to explain what the universe looked like 13.8 billion years ago, really for the first time, with high precision,” Spergel said in the video.

WMAP’s picture of the universe revealed the hot, young universe at only 375,000 years old. Among many other discoveries, scientists interpreting WMAP’s nine years of data have determined that the universe is 13.77 billion years old and is composed primarily of dark energy, representing more than 70 percent of all matter.

In addition to Jarosik, Page, Spergel, Wilkinson and Dunkley, nine other members of the WMAP team participated in the research while graduate students or postdoctoral researchers at Princeton: Chris Barnes, Rachel Bean, Olivier Dore, Eiichiro Komatsu, Michele Limon, Mike Nolta, Hiranya Peiris, Kendrick Smith and Licia Verde.

The Breakthrough Prizes were founded by Sergey Brin, Yuri and Julia Milner, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, and Anne Wojcicki. Selection committees composed of previous Breakthrough Prize laureates choose the winners. First awarded in 2013, the prizes recognize scientists in the fields of life sciences, fundamental physics,and mathematics with $3 million prizes for each award. This year, seven Breakthrough Prizes were given, with the Princeton scientists sharing the prize in the fundamental physics category. In addition, up to three $100,000 New Horizons in Physics and up to three New Horizons in Mathematics Prizes are given out to early-career researchers each year.