Simon White wins Gruber Cosmology Prize

Simon White and three other astronomers Receive Gruber Cosmology Prize for Reconstructing How the Universe Grew.
The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation announced on 1 June 2011 that Simon White, a director of the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching, Germany, Marc Davis, a professor in the Departments of Astronomy and Physics at the University of California at Berkeley; George Efstathiou, the director of the Kavli Institute for Cosmology in Cambridge; and Carlos Frenk, the director of the Institute for Computational Cosmology at Durham University will share this year's Cosmology Prize. The official citation recognizes the astronomers for “their pioneering use of numerical simulations to model and interpret the large-scale distribution of matter in the Universe.” The Gruber Prize recognizes both the method that the four astronomers introduced as well as the collaboration's subsequent discoveries. Davis, Efstathiou, Frenk, and White will each receive an equal share of the $500,000 award, along with a gold medal, at a ceremony this fall. They will also deliver a lecture.

Simon White (Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics)
© Georgine Treybal

In 1981, Davis led the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) survey of 2400 galaxies at various distances, extraordinary census of how the heavens look on the largest scales. This hinted at what today is called “the cosmic web”, galaxies grouped into lengthy filaments, or superclusters, separated by vast voids. Two competing theories tried to explain how matter could have coalesced in such a manner; both theories including “dark matter”. In the “hot dark matter” theory, the particles would travel at velocities approaching the speed of light at early times, leaving the normal matter behind. In contrast to this, in the “cold dark matter” theory, the slowly moving particles would fall together to build galaxy halos, dragging the regular matter along for the ride.

To test these theories, the astronomers needed to model the evolution of the universe over billions of years. Adapting a numerical method from another field of physics, Efstathiou succeed in creating a code for cosmology and Davis, Frenk, and White then used that code to demonstrate that a simulated universe based on the hot dark matter theory did not remotely match the CfA observations. Then, in a series of five landmark papers from 1985 to 1988, Davis, Efstathiou, Frenk, and White showed that observations of galaxies, clusters, filaments, and voids were consistent with a simulated universe that had evolved under the influence of cold dark matter.

Cold dark matter (or CDM) is today one of the two key components of the standard cosmological model. The other is the acceleration of the expansion of the universe, a discovery observers made in the late 1990s that simulations of the four astronomers had anticipated. Today the match between observation and theory indicates that the universe is composed of 4.6 percent “ordinary” matter, 23.3 percent dark matter, and 72.1 percent dark energy, which is responsible for the accelerated expansion. Numerical simulations of the kind pioneered by Davis, Efstathiou, Frenk, and White show that a universe with this astonishingly precise yet remarkably strange composition does indeed develop structures which are a close match to those we see around us.


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