January 22, 2010

“Cheech and Chong” of astrophysics recognized for once-controversial views

University professors Michael Turner and Edward Kolb will receive the 2010 Dannie Heinemann Prize for Astrophysics next January in recognition of their foundational contributions to the field of particle astrophysics.

The American Institute of Physics and the American Astronomical Society presents the award.

“The connection between quarks and the cosmos, the very little and the vast, is profound,” Turner said. Now recognized as a fundamental way of understanding the universe, the scientific community originally doubted Kolb’s and Turner’s synthesis of particle physics and astronomy.

“We were known as the Cheech and Chong of astrophysics, the very entertaining type,” Turner said. “Those crazy guys out in Chicago with Fermi.”

Other scientists later recognized their work, however, and in 1998 the pair had their “eureka moment,” Turner said, when the scientific community endorsed their theories, which now underpin particle astrophysics.

Turner’s work focuses on energy changes that occur on a quantum scale, which can help create galaxies. Turner also studies “dark matter,” a phrase he coined, and dark energy. Little is currently known about either, but astronomers believe they are causing the universe to accelerate. Kolb was unavailable for comment; he studies the physical process that went on just after the big bang.

Turner said the award should not be accredited just to Kolb and him alone, but to the University itself. At the time when Kolb’s and Turner’s theories were deemed radical, the University extended them support. The University makes itself a “fertile place for ideas that bridge disciplines,” Turner said, allowing their theories of particle cosmology to thrive.