Three Princeton scientists share Breakthrough Prize for mapping the early universe

Three Princeton University scientists have been awarded the 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.”

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.

“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.”

Jarosik is a senior research physicist and lecturer in physics, Page is the James S. McDonnell Distinguished University Professor in Physics, and Spergel is the Charles A. Young Professor of Astronomy on the Class of 1897 Foundation. They share the $3 million prize with Charles Bennett of Johns Hopkins University, Gary Hinshaw of the University of British Columbia and the rest of the 27-member WMAP team.

The new Breakthrough laureates received their honors at NASA Ames Research Center in Palo Alto, California, at a televised awards ceremony Sunday evening.

“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 Princeton University President Christopher L. Eisgruber, who attended the event.

“Their pioneering work has illuminated some of the most challenging topics in astrophysics, yielding dazzling insights that continue to shape the field today,” he said. “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.”


This detailed picture of the infant universe, created from nine years of WMAP data, reveals 13.77 billion year old temperature fluctuations (shown as color differences) that correspond to the “seeds” that grew to become galaxies.

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 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 “baby 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.

The Breakthrough Prizes, first awarded in 2013, recognize scientists in the fields of Life Sciences (up to five per year), Fundamental Physics (up to one per year) and Mathematics (up to one per year) with $3 million prizes for each award. This year, seven Breakthrough Prizes were given, with the Princeton scientists sharing the sole 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.

Princeton biologist David Botstein and physicist Andrei Bernevig received Breakthrough Prizes in 2013 and 2015, respectively.

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.