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Research

Three Cheers for Faculty Research

Charles L. Bennett, a new professor in Physics and Astronomy, will receive the prestigious Henry Draper Medal at this month's National Academy of Science meeting. Bestowed every four years and named for a pioneer in astronomical photography, the Draper Medal goes to scientists and individuals who have made significant contributions to astronomical physics. The academy cited Bennett, who joined the faculty in January, for his work with the Wilkinson Microwave Anistropy Probe (WMAP), a NASA Explorer mission that is working to determine precisely the age, composition, and curvature of the universe.

WMAP measures the temperature of cosmic background radiation-the oldest light in the universe, a remnant of the Big Bang. With the WMAP satellite, Bennett's team has taken the first-ever detailed, full-sky "baby picture" in microwave light from 379,000 years after the Big Bang. The light mapped by WMAP has traveled across the universe for more than 13 billion years and now provides us with a direct picture of what the universe was like then.

"It's as if a photo of a 13-month-old baby was mailed to a relative and got delayed in delivery. Decades later, the relative receives the picture of the now 80-year-old relation!" Bennett explains. "Using WMAP, we see what our universe looked like in its infancy."

Before coming to Hopkins, Bennett was a senior scientist for experimental cosmology at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, where the WMAP was built in partnership with Princeton University. He is the third Johns Hopkins scientist to win the Draper Medal: Hopkins' first physics professor, Henry A. Rowland, received the award in 1890, and Robert W. Wood, who was a professor of experimental physics, won in 1940.

Bennett's colleague in Physics and Astronomy, Alumni Centennial Professor
Alexander Szalay, has received a $1.2 million grant for the development of a new method for analyzing massive amounts of data common in astronomy, genetics, and other fields.

The grant from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation matches an earlier W.M. Keck Foundation grant of the same amount and will fund three post-doctoral fellows in advanced scientific data analysis.

Szalay, also a professor of computer science in the Whiting School of Engineering, is developing a new approach to analyzing very large data sets to solve what he calls "problems on the frontiers of science." He has spent the past decade creating various components necessary for the development of this approach, which would be able to analyze data scaling 1 trillion bytes or more. "Most scientific data collected today will never be examined directly as 'raw data' by scientists," Szalay explains. "Instead, it will be put online into 'smart databases,' where it will be analyzed and summarized by computer programs before scientists even see or use it."

University President William R. Brody says the project has the potential to transform not just one or two fields, but "the way we approach a broad array of problems across many disciplines."

Paul Smolensky, professor and former chair of the Department of Cognitive Science, has won the fifth annual David E. Rumelhart Prize, a prestigious international award for significant contributions to the formal analysis of human cognition.

The youngest scientist ever selected for this honor, Smolensky, 49, will receive the $100,000 prize and deliver the award lecture at the annual meeting of the Cognitive Society in Stresa, Italy, in July.

Smolensky and his collaborator, Alan Prince of Rutgers University, are responsible for what many consider one of the most important advances in linguistics since the 1950s: optimality theory. The theory posits that the world's 6,500 languages share a common set of criteria that make certain expressions preferable, such as syllables that begin with consonants and sentences that begin with subjects.

The prize is named for a former Stanford University professor renowned for great scientific achievements and his gentle humanity. A form of early dementia called Pick's disease has disabled Rumelhart, who now lives in Michigan.

 

 

SPRING/SUMMER 2005
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