News / Vancouver

UBC wins the Oscar of science awards for groundbreaking photo technology

The $3-million Breakthrough Prize for Fundamental Physics was started by the founders of Facebook, Google, 23andMe and Digital Sky Technologies.

This microwave image of our universe in its 'infancy' — created from nine years of temperature data by NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe — helped a team including two UBC physicists the $3-million Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics on Dec. 4, 2017.

Courtesy NASA/WMAP Science Team

This microwave image of our universe in its 'infancy' — created from nine years of temperature data by NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe — helped a team including two UBC physicists the $3-million Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics on Dec. 4, 2017.

Think of it as "a picture of someone's actual birth day," astrophysicist Gary Hinshaw quipped.

Except the University of B.C. professor's ground-breaking image is of a particularly special somebody: our entire universe, as never seen before.

On Sunday night, his National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) team's microwave image of the cosmos garnered the $3-million Breakthrough Prize for Fundamental Physics — nicknamed "the Oscars of science" because of their star-studded red carpet gala.

"It was quite an event," he told Metro after the ceremony. "The red carpet, the photo and interview line — they parade you in, blast music, and the stars go up to unveil the winners just like the Oscars.

"It was surreal … like nothing I've ever been involved in."

The prize — started by the founders of Facebook, Google, 23andMe and Digital Sky Technologies — is awarded by a jury of previous winners.

Hinshaw, who led data analysis for NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) team, created the winning image from microwave data the team gathered over nine years using a satellite.

It depicts the entire universe through temperature changes, like a heat map — "a map of brightness in every direction, the leftover heat from the Big Bang."

But those hot-spots aren't random: they have a "very specific shape and size" that he said contain information about what our universe was like just 379,000 years after its birth.

"We know the age and size and shape of the universe at that time by looking at these spots," he said. "They're like ripples in a pond; you can understand the properties of the water by looking at how it responded to disturbances."

Those data suggest our universe is 13.77 billion years old; compared to an average human life span, WMAP's image captures the universe at just a half-day old.

"If you put this image in terms of a human life, it would be a baby picture at a half-day old," Hinshaw said. "You're looking at how the universe responded to disturbances at its very beginning."

Forget the Big Bang, however. Hinshaw believes our universe did a "Big Inflation" — from a flat, microscopically small disk — suddenly after some kind of "disturbance."

"We're not really sure if there was a 'big bang' per se," he explained. "The basic idea is … there was a turn in the universe's energy density at that time, which led it to inflate very rapidly and dramatically by many orders of magnitude — which lasted for perhaps a fraction of a second."

It's expanded gradually ever since, but Hinshaw said "what's remarkable" is how it links the largest and smallest scales.

"We think the variations we see in the heat map actually originate from quantum mechanical fluctuations in the pre-inflation universe," he said. "They are quantum mechanics writ large on the sky."

University of B.C. physics and astronomy professor Gary Hinshaw receives the 2017 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics

Jesse Grant/Getty Images

University of B.C. physics and astronomy professor Gary Hinshaw receives the 2017 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics

Hinshaw, recently elected a Royal Society of Canada fellow, was in charge of WMAP's data analysis and assembled the award-winning image from its microwave data.

His fellow UBC physics colleague Mark Halpern, also on the team, was key in designing and building the project's hardware used to gather data, and helped interpret it.

And though Hinshaw is eager to keep analyzing the discoveries behind his award-winning image, a day after his team's red-carpet win it was a different picture he was more excited by.

"I got a selfie with Morgan Freeman and Mila Kunis," he noted.

More on Metronews.ca