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University scientists share $3 million Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics

On Sunday, at the NASA Ames Research Center in Palo Alto, Calif., 13 past and present University researchers were awarded the $3 million Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for their “detailed maps of the early universe that greatly improved our knowledge of the evolution of the cosmos and the fluctuations that seeded galaxies,” according to a University press release.

Physics professors Norman Jarosik and Lyman Page, Jr., along with astrophysics professor David Spergel, were honored for their groundbreaking work on the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, a NASA satellite aimed to make cosmology measurements and understand the properties of the universe. The award was shared with 22 other members of the WMAP team, which includes professor of physics and astrophysical sciences Jo Dunkley, a key player in the project, and nine former University postdoctoral researchers and graduate students: Chris Barnes GS '98, Rachel Bean, Olivier Dore, Eiichiro Komatsu, Michele Limon, Mike Nolta GS '02, Hiranya Peiris, Kendrick Smith, and Licia Verde. 


The WMAP experiment began as a project over a decade ago, initiated by a team including late University professors David Wilkinson, to whom the probe is dedicated, and Robert Dicke. With WMAP, scientists are able to detect changes in the cosmic microwave background, and explain what the universe looked like 13.8 billion years ago, according to Spergel, in a video presented during the awards ceremony.

At the televised ceremony, the award was presented by Sam Altman, the president of the startup seed funder Y Combinator, and Mayim Bialik, a neuroscientist and actress in “The Big Bang Theory.”

Previous winners of the Breakthrough Prize include former University biology professor David Botstein and physics professor Andrei Bernevig, who were awarded the prize in 2013 and 2015, respectively. 

The Breakthrough Prizes, which were founded by Sergey Brin, Yuri and Julia Milner, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, and Anne Wojcicki, also recognize scientists in the fields of life sciences and mathematics with $3 million prizes for each award. The Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics is specifically awarded to “individuals who have made profound contributions to human knowledge.”

“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,” said University President Christopher Eisgruber '83, who was in attendance at the event.