Life / Technology

UBC astrophysicist honoured for work on determining universe's age, composition

Dr. Gary Hinshaw, an astrophysicist at the University of British Columbia, poses in this undated handout photo. Astrophysicist Dr. Gary Hinshaw wasn't sure what a satellite would find when it launched in 2001. The data it discovered would lead his NASA team to create what Hinshaw describes as the universe's baby picture. It also set up the researchers for a prestigious science prize awarded by a group that includes the founder of Facebook. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO

Dr. Gary Hinshaw, an astrophysicist at the University of British Columbia, poses in this undated handout photo. Astrophysicist Dr. Gary Hinshaw wasn't sure what a satellite would find when it launched in 2001. The data it discovered would lead his NASA team to create what Hinshaw describes as the universe's baby picture. It also set up the researchers for a prestigious science prize awarded by a group that includes the founder of Facebook. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO

VANCOUVER — Astrophysicist Dr. Gary Hinshaw wasn't sure what a satellite would find when it launched in 2001.

The data it discovered would lead his NASA team to create what Hinshaw describes as the universe's baby picture.

It also set up the researchers for a prestigious science prize awarded by a group that includes the founder of Facebook.

"You build this instrument, you test it on the ground, you make sure it's going to survive the rigours of a rocket launch and that it's going to deploy it when you deploy it from the rocket, and if it doesn't, you've just wasted 10 years of your life, because you don't get a second chance," said Hinshaw, now a researcher and professor at the University of British Columbia.

The satellite, called the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), did survive and spent nearly a decade measuring heat radiation left over from the big bang. Hinshaw and his team then mapped that data, giving a visual picture of the early universe. They've also analyzed the findings to determine that the universe is 13.7 billion years old and only five per cent is made up of the chemical elements found in the periodic table.

Hinshaw and 26 other researchers were honoured for their work Sunday with the Breakthrough Prize in fundamental physics.

Since 2012, the award has been handed out for top achievements in physics, life sciences and mathematics. The Breakthrough Prize board includes Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Anne Wojcicki, the co-founder and CEO of the genetics company 23andme, and Yuri Milner, a Russian physicist, entrepreneur and venture capitalist.

Receiving the award is humbling, said Hinshaw, who travelled to Palo Alto, Calif., for the star-studded ceremony, which was to be hosted by actor Morgan Freeman.

The WMAP work has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience and a labour of love, Hinshaw said, noting that he and his colleagues published about 13 papers over a span of five months on the first year's results.

He described the 15 to 20 years he spent working on the project as intense and "brutally rewarding."

"You're both exhilarated by the data and exhausted by the processing and the work of just turning the raw data into an image that you can actually visualize, see, plot on the screen and then start to interpret."

The most amazing part is that the map included so many profound answers, Hinshaw said.

"Nature could have been much less kind and not left a fossil like this behind. And we wouldn't have the ability to answer these questions yet today," he said.

The work also created new questions for researchers looking at the origin and composition of the universe.

Hinshaw is now looking to unravel dark energy. So far, he said, researchers know that it makes up the vast majority of the universe and causes it to expand faster and faster.

To help with the latest work, Hinshaw and his team have built a radio telescope near Penticton, B.C., which will be used to try and measure dark energy.

As part of the Breakthrough Prize, Hinshaw and the four other WMAP team leaders will share $1.5 million, while the 22 other researchers will share another $1.5 million.

Hinshaw said he wants to use part of his prize money to fund his latest research efforts and bring in some young scientists to work on the project. He'd also like to set some money aside for his kids and give some to charity.

But what Hinshaw really hopes the award will do is give the public some appreciation and respect for science.

"Science doesn't always have the right answers, but we're always open to rejecting ideas and to accepting new ideas," he said. "And that the process is very methodical and peer-reviewed, so science is not just a purely theoretical endeavour."

— Follow @gkarstenssmith on Twitter

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