Johns Hopkins researcher Marc Kamionkowski shares top astrophysics prize

He receives Dannie Heineman Prize for his scientific contributions to our understanding of the universe

Johns Hopkins University's Marc Kamionkowski has been named one of two winners of the 2015 Dannie Heineman Prize for Astrophysics, one of the top prizes in the field, the American Astronomical Society and the American Institute of Physics announced today.

The honor, awarded annually to outstanding mid-career scientists, carries a cash prize of $10,000 that will be split between Kamionkowski and his co-recipient, David Spergel of Princeton University.

The two researchers were honored "for their outstanding contributions to the investigation of the fluctuations of the cosmic microwave background, which have led to major breakthroughs in our understanding of the universe," according to the selection committee.

Kamionkowski, a theoretical physicist and a professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy within the university's [Krieger School of Arts and Sciences}(, specializes in cosmology and particle physics. He studies data collected from telescopes and other instruments to suggest a history of the universe that conforms to the laws of physics. His work has often set the stage for successful experimental research conducted by other scientists.

"Marc Kamionkowski's groundbreaking theoretical work on cosmic background radiation has helped drive experimental progress in the field, work that has forever changed how we view the universe," said Fred Dylla, the American Institute of Physics' executive director and CEO.

"It's a great honor for me," Kamionkowski said after learning he would receive the Heineman Prize. "If I look at the list of prior winners, lots of astrophysicists whose work I have admired over the years are there. It's also an honor to share it with David Spergel."

Said David J. Helfand, president of Quest University Canada and a past president of the American Astronomical Society: "Marc and David have taught us how to read the subtle bumps and swirls in our exquisite image of the early universe to reveal what happened in the moments of creation."

Kamionkowski received his PhD from the University of Chicago in 1991 and did his postdoctoral work at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J. He then worked as an assistant professor at Columbia University before moving to Caltech in 1999. He joined the faculty at Johns Hopkins in 2011. He has received numerous awards for his work, including the E.O. Lawrence Award for Physics in 2006, and he was named a Simons Foundation Investigator in 2014.

Kamionkowski began his work on cosmic background radiation—leftover thermal energy from the Big Bang—in the 1990s, when NASA's Cosmic Background Explorer was beginning to announce results. "It seemed like a promising area for investigation," he said. He co-wrote several papers with Spergel proposing a way to determine the spatial geometry of the universe, using temperature maps of the cosmic microwave background.

"I think that our work helped provide the motivation for these experiments," he said. "By the beginning of the next decade, we were already starting to see measurements like those we had envisioned."

Later, Kamionkowski studied the polarization of the cosmic microwave background, again spurring experimentalists to measure this phenomenon. His work has advanced the field of precision cosmology, which in recent years has provided data on the age, shape, and composition of the universe.

"One of the goals of my research," he said, "has been to think of ways we can use cosmic microwave background and other cosmological measurements to learn about the very early universe or physical phenomenon that might occur in a later universe."

His latest honor, the Heineman Prize, is named after Dannie N. Heineman, an engineer, business executive, and philanthropic sponsor of the sciences. The prize was established in 1979 by the Heineman Foundation for Research, Education, Charitable and Scientific Purposes Inc.

Kamionkowski is the third consecutive Heineman Prize winner with a connection to Johns Hopkins. The 2013 winner, Rachel Somerville, held a joint appointment at Johns Hopkins and the Space Telescope Science Institute before joining Rutgers in 2011, and Piero Madau, the 2014 recipient who is now at UC Santa Cruz, held appointments at Johns Hopkins and the Space Telescope Science Institute from 1989 to 1999. Kamionkowski is the first Johns Hopkins professor to receive the Heineman Prize since 1981, when the honor went to Riccardo Giacconi, who later won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2002 "for pioneering contributions to astrophysics, which have led to the discovery of cosmic X-ray sources."