Alan Guth wins 2014 Kavli Prize in Astrophysics
2014 Astrophysics Citation
|The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters awards the
2014 Kavli Prize in Astrophysics to:
Alan H. Guth
Massachusetts Institute of Technology, US
Andrei D. Linde
Stanford University, US
Alexei A. Starobinsky
Landau Institute for Theoretical Physics Russian Academy of Sciences, Russia
|“for pioneering the theory of cosmic inflation.”|
THE 2014 KAVLI PRIZE IN ASTROPHYSICS is awarded to Alan Guth, Andrei Linde and Alexei Starobinsky “for pioneering the theory of cosmic inflation.”
The theory of cosmic inflation, proposed and developed by Alan Guth, Andrei Linde and Alexei Starobinsky, has revolutionized our thinking about the universe. This theory extends our physical description of the cosmos to the earliest times, when the universe was only a tiny fraction of a second old. According to this theory, very soon after our universe came into existence it underwent a short-lived phase of exponential expansion. During this brief period the universe expanded by a huge factor – hence the name inflation. The consequences of this episode were momentous for the evolution of the cosmos.
Without inflation, the Big Bang theory – a great achievement of 20th century science – is incomplete. According to the Big Bang theory our universe came into existence approximately 14 billion years ago. Its initial density and temperature were unimaginably high. Since then, the universe has been expanding at a rate that can be calculated using Einstein’s theory of General Relativity. In spite of its astounding success, the Big Bang theory suffers from two major shortcomings: the “horizon” and the “flatness” problems. Cosmic inflation solves them both.
As the universe expanded it cooled. Today it is bathed in a sea of microwave radiation, the heat left over from the Big Bang. At first sight, the near uniformity of this microwave background across the sky implies a disturbing contradiction: opposite parts of the sky would never have been in causal contact with each other. How could the properties of this radiation be so similar when no physical processes could have acted to homogenize it? This puzzle is known as the horizon problem. A related puzzle is the flatness problem: if, at the Big Bang, the geometry of space had deviated ever so slightly from a flat configuration, the curvature of the universe would have subsequently been rapidly amplified. Yet, by the 1970s, astronomers were inferring that the geometry of our universe is close to flat. The Big Bang theory had no explanation for this observation.
These two fundamental problems were elegantly solved in one fell swoop by Alan Guth in a paper entitled “Inflationary universe: A possible solution to the horizon and flatness problems” published in 1981. Guth hypothesized that the universe was initially trapped in a peculiar state (the “false vacuum”) from which it decayed, in the process expanding exponentially and liberating the energy present in our universe today. The phase of rapid expansion would have exposed different parts of the universe to one another, so that physical processes could homogenize the properties of the primordial radiation. This solved the horizon problem. The same expansion would have ironed out any primordial curvature, thereby also solving the flatness problem. However, Guth’s simple and elegant model was flawed: as he himself recognized, it would lead to gross inhomogeneities in the distribution of matter on large scales.
In 1982 Andrei Linde proposed a working model of inflation in which the universe would gracefully exit from the exponential expansion phase without producing unacceptable inhomogeneities. He went on to build ever more sophisticated models, which dominate current thinking in the field.
In 1980 Alexei Starobinsky independently postulated a similar early phase of exponential expansion, in this case driven by quantum gravity effects. The solution he devised included an important prediction: the early universe would have generated gravitational waves which, he speculated, might one day be detected.
That the universe has a flat geometry has now been confirmed to extraordinary precision. With all its implications for the geometry and structure of our universe, the concept of cosmic inflation transformed the way in which physicists think about the early universe.
Nine scientific pioneers receive the 2014 Kavli Prizes
Nine pioneering scientists have been named this year’s recipients of the Kavli Prizes – prizes that recognize scientists for their seminal advances in astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience. This year’s laureates were selected for pioneering the theory of cosmic inflation, for transformative contributions to the field of nano-optics and for the discovery of specialized brain networks for memory and cognition.
The Kavli Prize is awarded by The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters and consists of a cash award of 1 million US dollars in each field. The laureates receive in addition a gold medal and a scroll. Today’s announcement was made by Nils Chr. Stenseth, President of The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, and transmitted live to New York as part of the opening event at the World Science Festival.
The Kavli Prize in Astrophysics is shared between Alan H. Guth, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA, Andrei D. Linde, Stanford University, USA, and Alexei A. Starobinsky, Landau Institute for Theoretical Physics, Russian Academy of Sciences, Russia. They receive the prize “for pioneering the theory of cosmic inflation”. The theory of cosmic inflation, proposed and developed by the three prize winners, has revolutionized our thinking about the Universe.
According to this theory, very soon after our universe came into existence it underwent a short-lived phase of exponential expansion. During this brief period the universe expanded by a huge factor – hence the name inflation. The consequences of this episode were momentous for the evolution of the cosmos. The field of inflation theory now occupies thousands of theorists, and many variations of inflation are being actively debated.
The Kavli Prize in Nanoscience is shared between Thomas W. Ebbesen, Université Louis Pasteur, Université de Strasbourg, France, Stefan W. Hell, Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, Germany, and Sir John B. Pendry, Imperial College London, UK.
They receive the prize “for transformative contributions to the field of nano-optics that have broken long-held beliefs about the limitations of the resolution limits of optical microscopy and imaging”.
With their respective work, they have challenged established beliefs about the resolution limits of optical imaging, showing that light can interact with nanostructures smaller than its wavelength.
Seeing at the ‘nanoscale’ was long considered to be limited in visible resolution by the finite wavelength of ‘light’, so that only objects larger than ~ 200 nanometers could be imaged. This is about 100 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair.
Each of this year’s prize winners, through their different insights and routes, has independently advanced our ability to ‘see’ nanostructures using ‘ordinary’ light. This ability to see and image nanoscale objects is a critical prerequisite to further advances in the broader field of nanoscience.
The Kavli Prize in Neuroscience is shared between Brenda Milner, Montreal Neurological Institute, McGill University, Canada, John O’Keefe, University College London, UK, and Marcus E. Raichle, Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine, USA. They receive the prize “for the discovery of specialized brain networks for memory and cognition”.
The recipients of the Kavli Prize in Neuroscience have all played major roles in advancing our understanding of memory and in the development of techniques to measure the brain. They have discovered that these functions are produced by specialized systems in the brain, which they analysed through a variety of research approaches. They have found the specific regions of the brain that are involved in memory, and how specialized nerve cells perform different roles.
The higher cognitive functions of our brains such as attention, memory, and planning are crucial to create our rich mental lives: memory is essential for humans, from the recognition of where we are, through learning new skills, to being able to recall events. In humans memory can be said to define who we are, and we know that loss of memory can have devastating effects on an individual’s personality. Knowing how memory function should work in healthy people could open the door to understanding what has changed in patients with dementia and memory loss.
About the Kavli Prizes
The Kavli Prize is a partnership between The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, The Kavli Foundation (USA) and The Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research. The Kavli Prizes were initiated by and named after Fred Kavli (1927 – 2013), founder of The Kavli Foundation which is dedicated to advancing science for the benefit of humanity, promoting public understanding of scientific research, and supporting scientists and their work.
Kavli Prize recipients are chosen biennially by three prize committees comprised of distinguished international scientists recommended by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the French Academy of Sciences, the Max Planck Society, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and The Royal Society. After making their selection for award recipients, the recommendations of these prize committees are confirmed by The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters.
The 2014 Kavli Prizes will be awarded in Oslo, Norway, on the 9th of September. His Majesty King Harald will present the prizes to the laureates. This year’s ceremony will be hosted by Alan Alda and Haddy N’jie.
The ceremony is part of Kavli Prize Week - a week of special programs that celebrate extraordinary achievements in science, educate the public on important scientific advances, and bring together distinguished members of the international community to discuss key global issues in science and science policy.