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January 28, 2009
CONTACT: Lisa De Nike
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Johns Hopkins Astrophysicist Wins
Comstock Prize in Physics

Charles L. Bennett
Charles L. Bennett
Photo by Will Kirk / Homewood Photographic Services

Charles L. Bennett, a professor in the Henry A. Rowland Department of Physics and Astronomy at The Johns Hopkins University, has been chosen by the National Academy of Sciences as the winner of the 2009 Comstock Prize in Physics for his groundbreaking work in cosmology. As the leader of the NASA Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) space mission, Bennett and his team made a precise determination of the age, composition and curvature of the universe.

The $20,000 Comstock Prize was established in 1913 through a donation from the estate of Cyrus B. Comstock, who was chief engineer under General Ulysses S. Grant at the battle of Vicksburg and a member of the Army Corps of Engineers. It is awarded every five years to a resident of North America for a "recent innovative discovery or investigation in electricity, magnetism or radiant energy, broadly interpreted." The first Comstock prize went to Robert A. Millikan of the University of Chicago for his discovery of the charge of the electron. The 2009 prize to Bennett is the 20th Comstock Prize.

Bennett, who is being honored for his mapping of the cosmic microwave background and determining the universe's age, mass-energy content, geometry, expansion rate, and reionization epoch with unprecedented precision, will receive the Comstock Prize at a ceremony set for April 26 during the 146th annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C.

"It is a great honor to receive the Comstock Prize in Physics from the National Academy of Sciences," said Bennett, who emphasizes that though the WMAP team has answered many fundamental physical questions about our universe, mysteries remain. "Fortunately, the tools for confronting these mysteries are nearly at hand. Although we occupy an insignificant spot in the vastness of space, we have learned an enormous amount about our universe, and we are poised to learn even more. This is a very exciting time."

Throughout his career, Bennett has made significant contributions to the knowledge of cosmology through pioneering measurements of the cosmic background radiation, the oldest light in the universe and a remnant of the hot young universe. In 2003, Bennett and his team made international news with their announcement that the universe is less than 5 percent atoms, one quarter dark matter, and nearly three-quarters a mysterious dark energy, and that the universe is 13.7 billion years old. The WMAP results also support the paradigm that the cosmos we now see grew from subatomic in size to a vast expanse of stars and galaxies in a tiny fraction of a second. Bennett and his team made international news again in 2006, when these conclusions were further strengthened with additional data.

Bennett previously served as Deputy Principal Investigator on NASA's Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE) satellite, which was launched in 1989 and provided evidence in support of the big bang theory. As a result of that work, he shared in the Peter Gruber Foundation's 2006 Cosmology Prize to John Mather and the COBE Team.

In 2005, Bennett won the prestigious Henry Draper Medal of the National Academy of Sciences "for significant contributions to astronomical physics." In 2006, he was awarded the Harvey Prize by the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. Bennett was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2004 and the National Academy of Sciences in 2005. He received two NASA Exceptional Achievement medals and a NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal. He is a Fellow of both the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Digital photos of Bennett are available. Contact Lisa De Nike at Lde@jhu.edu.