Team that revealed age and size of universe honoured

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 May, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 28 May, 2010, 12:00am

A research team that established the exact size and age of the universe is among this year's Shaw laureates after winning Hong Kong's answer to the Nobel prize.

Winners of the three awards in the Shaw Prize 2010 - for astronomy, life sciences and medicine and mathematical sciences - were announced yesterday. Each award carries a prize of US$1 million.

Scientists working in the United States swept the board this year, with no Hong Kong or mainland-born researchers among the five winners.

Charles Bennett, of Johns Hopkins University, and Lyman Page and David Spergel of Princeton University jointly won the astronomy prize for devising a probe that maps microwave radiation in the sky, which they used to measure the age, shape and make-up of the universe.

The greater precision afforded by the probe has enabled scientists to demonstrate that the universe is geometrically flat, its age is 13.75 billion years, plus or minus 0.13 billion years, and it is made up of elements including dark energy and dark matter.

Kenneth Young, vice-chairman of the Shaw Prize Foundation's board of adjudicators, said: 'We all want to know where we came from and how the universe started and we are now getting a grip on these very important questions that have bothered humanity from antiquity.

'When I was a student, people said the universe would have been about 10 to 20 billion years old and about 10 years ago, people would say about 14 billion years old. A few years ago they were saying 13.7 billion years and now they say 13.75 billion years, plus or minus a bit. That is the level of precision we are talking about.'

Thanks to the work of Bennett, Page and Spergel, scientists also had a much better picture of the size of the universe and knew that it was 'much larger than the so-called visible universe, which is about 14 billion light years', he added.

David Julius of the University of California, San Francisco, won the life sciences and medicine prize for discovering the molecular mechanisms responsible for the perception of pain and temperature and hypersensitivity to pain.

Young said: 'His work identified a cellular and molecular mechanism that is responsible for pain and that is the area where researchers will focus to develop new pharmaceuticals.'

Jean Bourgain, of Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, won the mathematical sciences prize for solving major problems across a wide range of fields. The Belgian mathematician was praised by the adjudicators as 'one of the most brilliant analysts of our time' who had produced techniques that had become standard mathematical tools.

Yang Chen-ning, chairman of the board of adjudicators, said: 'The Shaw Prize in the last seven years has attained a very prestigious position. In the fields of maths and astronomy, [it] is now the number one valued prize internationally, and in life science and medicine, the Shaw Prize is number two only after the Nobel Prize.'

This year's winners


Charles Bennett
Born: 1956
Current position: professor of physics and astronomy at Johns Hopkins University, Maryland, US

Lyman Page
Born: 1957
Current position: Henry DeWolf Smyth professor of physics at Princeton University, New Jersey, US

David Spergel
Born: 1961
Current position: Charles A. Young professor of astronomy and chair of department of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University

Main achievement: developed probe that made high-resolution map of microwave radiation across the sky, which they used to work out precise age, shape and composition of universe

Life sciences and medicine

David Julius
Born: 1955
Current position: professor and chairman of department of physiology at University of California, San Francisco

Main achievement: discovered molecular mechanisms that enable us to perceive pain and temperature through sense of touch, opening up possibility of new range of pain-relieving drugs

Mathematical sciences

Jean Bourgain
Born: 1954
Current position: professor at Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton University

Main achievement: resolved long-standing problems in wide range of fields including probability theory, statistical physics and partial differential equations through in-depth work in mathematical analysis