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Marc Kamionkowski, Columbia Astrophysicist, Wins American Astronomical Society's Warner Prize

Columbia University

Marc Kamionkowski, assistant professor of physics at Columbia University, has won the prestigious Helen B. Warner Prize for 1998, conferred by the American Astronomical Society.

The prize is awarded, usually annually, for a significant contribution to observational or theoretical astronomy during the preceding five years by an astronomer who has not yet reached his or her 36th birthday. Professor Kamionkowski, who is 32, was named for "his contributions to progress on a wide range of theoretical topics, including nuclear reactions related to the solar neutrino puzzle, the detectability of alternative dark matter candidates, phase transitions and topological defects in cosmology, the polarization of fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background, and microlensing."

Said David Helfand, professor of astronomy at Columbia, who nominated Professor Kamionkowski for the honor: "He is one of the youngest winners ever of the Warner Prize, and we are delighted that the astronomical community has recognized what has been obvious to his colleagues here. He is one of the leading young cosmologists in the world who we can expect to make many fundamental contributions to our understanding of the universe in the years ahead."

Professor Kamionkowski is a theorist who is researching topics in cosmology, astrophysics and particle physics. Most recently, he has concentrated on the cosmic microwave background radiation, and how it may clarify the origins of the universe.

Particle theories suggest that in the extreme temperatures prevalent in the very early universe, gravity may have become briefly a repulsive, rather than attractive, force. If so, the ensuing period of inflation could account for some fundamental features of the universe, such as the remarkable smoothness of the cosmic microwave background radiation, the afterglow of the Big Bang.

Professor Kamionkowski has investigated several predictions indicated by the presumed existence of inflation. According to the theory of relativity, inflation would mean that the density of the universe is just sufficient to counteract its expansion, so the universe should continue to expand forever but rapidly approach a steady state. If the density is less than that critical density, the universe will expand forever without approaching equilibrium; if greater, it will expand but eventually collapse.

The Columbia theorist and his collaborators showed how this prediction could be tested with precise measurements of the temperature of the cosmic microwave background. Hot and cold spots in the cosmic microwave background can serve as markers for which kind of universe we actually inhabit.

Inflation also produces a cosmological background of gravitational radiation, wavelike disturbances in the gravitational field analogous to electromagnetic waves familiar to us as light. He and his research team recently showed that if such gravitational waves exist, they will produce identifiable features in the polarization of the cosmic microwave background radiation.

Since his work, NASA has approved the flight of a satellite mission, the Microwave Anisotropy Probe (MAP), to be flown in 2000 to carry out these measurements, and the European Space Agency has approved a subsequent, more precise mission, the Planck Surveyor. By carrying out these tests, these experiments may illuminate the conditions that existed in the first microseconds after the Big Bang, Professor Kamionkowski said.

He earned the B.A. in physics from Washington University, St. Louis, and the Ph.D. from the University of Chicago. He was then a researcher at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. He joined the Columbia faculty in 1994 and has been named an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellow for 1996-98. 2.12.98 19,267


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