2017 Isaac Newton Medal and Prize

Professor Charles L Bennett of Johns Hopkins University for his leadership of the Microwave Anisotropy Probe, a satellite experiment that revolutionized cosmology, transforming it from an order-of-magnitude game to a paragon of precision science.

Professor Charles L Bennett, the leader of the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), has had a transformative effect in cosmology.

WMAP has, through its incredibly precise measurements of temperature fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background (CMB), revolutionized our understanding of the universe. It transformed cosmology from an order-of-magnitude game to a precision experimental science. It provided a picture of the universe that few could have imagined even 15 years ago.

Its measurements provided incontrovertible evidence for the existence of dark energy and for the nonbaryonic nature of the dark matter long known to hold galaxies together. They determined with unprecedented precision the abundance of baryonic matter and provided the first empirical evidence for the cosmic neutrino background.

These measurements initiated the first serious tests of inflation, postulated more than 20 years earlier. Furthermore, WMAP determined the epoch at which the first significant population of stars formed in the history of the universe. The probe’s data has also been used in many other ways, including studying gravitational lensing, non-Gaussianity, cosmological birefringence, and the thermal history of the intergalactic medium.

The results of WMAP have steered elementary-particle theory and string theory to dark matter, dark energy, and the early universe. The leadership of WMAP from the design and proposal phase, through construction, launch, and data taking, and then through the production over a decade of scientific results, was a masterpiece of scientific vision and leadership.

The assembly of the team, and its cohesiveness for more than a decade, is a testament to Bennett’s leadership – a leadership that built upon his critical role as deputy principal investigator of the Differential Microwave Radiometer project in the earlier Cosmic Background Explorer satellite.

The results of WMAP have now been confirmed and extended by the Planck satellite. WMAP began the revolution that transformed cosmology from a fringe area to one of the central endeavours of fundamental physics.

Bennett is a member of the National Academy of Sciences in the US, a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a Fellow of the American Physical Society.

He was awarded the Henry Draper Medal in 2005, the Harvey Prize in 2006, the Comstock Prize in Physics in 2009, the Shaw Prize in Astronomy in 2010, the Gruber Cosmology Prize in 2012 and the Caterina Tomassoni and Felice Pietro Chisesi Prize in 2015. He has received the NASA Exceptional Scientific Achievement Medal twice – once for COBE and once for WMAP, for which he was also awarded the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal.