03:07 AM

New Horizons in Physics Prize goes to Ohio State scientist

COLUMBUS, Ohio—When the “Oscars of science” were awarded Sunday night at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, an astrophysicist from The Ohio State University received a top prize for young researchers.

Christopher Hirata received the New Horizons in Physics Prize “for fundamental contributions to understanding the physics of early galaxy formation and to sharpening and applying the most powerful tools of precision cosmology,” according to the awarders of the annual Breakthrough Prize.

The prize awards $100,000 to promising junior researchers who have made an especially strong mark on science early in their careers.

The awards have been called the Oscars of science because the ceremony comes with a fair amount of Hollywood glamour, including a red carpet and a televised award ceremony. Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman hosted the show and Mila Kunis, Ashton Kutcher and Kerry Washington served as award presenters.

Hirata’s work has centered on the mysteries of dark matter and dark energy, which researchers believe control how galaxies form and how the universe expands.

Less than a decade ago, he performed calculations that proved that most atoms in the early universe would have been moving too fast to be captured by dark matter, which must have delayed the formation of the first galaxies.

“For this he dove into a 40-year-old subject and emerged with new physics that no one else had noticed, something that has big implications for understanding the early history of structure in the universe,” said David Weinberg, Distinguished University Professor in Astronomy at Ohio State.

As a professor of physics and astronomy at Ohio State and a member of the Center for Cosmology and AstroParticle Physics, Hirata has drawn together work in physics theory, observation, computing and statistics to enable the growth of a branch of science known as “precision cosmology.”

Christopher Hirata at the Breakthrough Prize ceremony.

Cosmology is the study of the large-scale structure and evolution of the universe, so putting the word “precision” before it sounds like an oxymoron. But it’s actually the merger of computing power, high-resolution telescopes and cosmological theory that has allowed scientists to connect precise measures of the masses of galaxies and dark matter to the universe’s behavior as a whole. And it’s Hirata’s ability to be equally comfortable working with big data, device engineering and theoretical physics that has raised his profile in the astrophysics community.

For instance, as a member of the science team for NASA’s upcoming WFIRST space telescope, Hirata works with the project engineers who are designing the instruments so that when WFIRST launches in the 2020s, it will gather data that astrophysicists will find most useful.

“Chris is remarkable not just for his extreme brilliance but for the way he applies it, to problems that range from the most difficult theoretical calculations to the most challenging cosmic measurements,” added Weinberg.

As challenging as the details of Hirata’s research are to grasp—even among other physicists—he says that the ultimate purpose of his work is something that anyone can relate to.

“We’re made out of normal matter, but only 5 percent of the universe is made of that stuff,” he explained. “The rest is what we call dark matter and dark energy, and we don’t actually know what it’s made of. The universe is expanding, and the expansion is accelerating, and we don’t know why. And it’s all tied up with the fate of the universe.”

“It’s such a fundamental question: What’s going to become of us?”

The Breakthrough Prize ceremony is presented by co-founders Sergey Brin (Google), Yuri Milner (DST Global) and Julia Milner, Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) and Priscilla Chan (Chan Zuckerberg Initiatives), and Anne Wojcicki (23andMe), along with Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter.

Each year, up to three New Horizons in Physics Prizes are awarded. Hirata is the first winner from Ohio State.

The prizes are funded by a grant from the Milner Foundation.