Sept. 20, 2001
Vol. 21 No. 1

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    Center for Cosmological Physics created with $15 million grant

    By Steve Koppes
    News Office

    President Don Randel (left to right) congratulates physicists Bruce Winstein and James Pilcher and Physical Sciences Dean David Oxtoby on the new Center for Cosmological Physics

    The University has received a $15 million grant from the National Science Foundation to establish a new national research center where researchers will spend the next five years probing the universe and studying astrophysical phenomena still unexplained by the known laws of physics.

    The new center is among the NSF’s inaugural Physics Frontier Centers, which are designed to pursue major advances at the intellectual frontiers of physics by providing resources not usually available to individual scientists or to small groups. The NSF selected the new centers from among approximately 50 proposals following a yearlong selection process.

    “The frontier that we’re proposing to explore is to my mind the ultimate frontier because it delves into the laws of physics governing the entire universe,” said Bruce Winstein, the Samuel K. Allison Distinguished Service Professor in Physics and Director of the new center.

    Winstein has spent the past 30 years studying particle physics. During that time he and his colleagues have found that the Standard Model, a set of theories that describes the behavior of matter, works extremely well in helping to understand the basic laws of nature. But now Winstein is interested in studying phenomena that go beyond the Standard Model.

    “In the area of astrophysical cosmology we do have clear signs of new phenomena, new physics beyond the Standard Model,” Winstein said. “They are addressable by experiment and can be probed with new instruments.”

    Center scientists will investigate several of these cosmological phenomena that the Standard Model is as yet unable to explain. Among these phenomena are dark matter and dark energy. Dark matter is invisible to telescopes, but astrophysicists know it exists by its gravitational interactions with visible matter. Dark energy is a mysterious repulsive force that apparently is causing the universe’s expansion to accelerate rather than slow down, as astrophysicists had expected to find.

    Also difficult to square with the Standard Model is the fact that points in the sky that have apparently never been in contact with each other have almost exactly the same temperature. Equally baffling are the rare but extremely powerful high-energy particles of unknown origin that periodically bombard the Earth.

    Before changing his research specialty to cosmological physics, Winstein headed a collaboration at Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory that involved 80 physicists from 12 institutions. In 1999, the team made a definitive observation of a new type of charge-parity violation, a phenomenon that made possible the formation of matter in the universe. The only previous observation of CP violation occurred in 1964, by Val Fitch and James Cronin, who shared the 1980 Nobel Prize in physics for the work. Cronin, University Professor Emeritus in Physics, Astronomy & Astrophysics, also is a member of the new center.

    Other founding members of the center are Associate Director Michael Turner, the Bruce and Diana Rauner Distinguished Service Professor in Astronomy & Astrophysics; Ed Blucher, Associate Professor in Physics; John Carlstrom, the S. Chandrasekhar Distinguished Service Professor in Astronomy & Astrophysics; Sean Carroll, Assistant Professor in Physics; Josh Frieman, Professor in Astronomy & Astrophysics; Wayne Hu, Assistant Professor in Astronomy & Astrophysics; Randall Landsberg, Director of Public Outreach, Center for Astrophysical Research in Antarctica; Stephan Meyer, Professor in Astronomy & Astrophysics; Angela Olinto, Assistant Professor in Astronomy & Astrophysics; and Simon Swordy, Professor in Astronomy & Astrophysics.

    These members, and nine postdoctoral fellows from the University’s Enrico Fermi Institute, will collaborate with cosmologists at Princeton University and the University of California, Berkeley, and elsewhere. Additional affiliations will be developed with other institutions. The center will be housed in the University’s Laboratory for Astrophysics and Space Research building.

    The postdoctoral junior scientists will play an important role in the center’s efforts to bridge the gap between traditional disciplines, Winstein said. “They will be free to work on any or several of the center’s activities,” he said. “As they go on to permanent positions in national labs and universities, they will spread more widely the interdisciplinary approach that is crucial for addressing the most fundamental problems at the frontier of cosmological physics today.”

    The center also will continually host visiting scientists, ranging from graduate students at other universities to scientists on sabbatical from the world’s leading particle physics laboratories.

    An extensive outreach program at the new center will include public lectures and symposia at the Adler Planetarium, an annual retreat for undergraduate women who major in science and an Inner City K-12 Enrichment Program.

    The Inner City K-12 Enrichment Program will bring local students into University laboratories, expose them to advanced technology, provide them hands-on experimental experiences, and challenge them to think critically and solve problems. Members of the center previously operated a minority K-12 enrichment program that resulted in 90 percent of its participants attending college.

    The University is a natural location for the Center for Cosmological Physics, Turner said. The late David Schramm, a former Chicago faculty member, is widely regarded as the founder of cosmological physics. “It was his vision and enthusiasm and energy that pushed this field forward,” Turner said.