Universe born before your eyes: simulation by astrophysicist Simon White wins Hong Kong's 2017 Shaw Prize

British scientist has developed a computer model of the evolution of cosmic structures billions of years ago

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 28 September, 2017, 7:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 28 September, 2017, 5:29pm

A British astrophysicist has been awarded the annual US$1.2 million (HK$9.3 million) Shaw Prize this year for his groundbreaking computer program designed to simulate the birth of the universe some 13 billion years ago.

Renowned scientist Simon White, director of the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Germany, was in town on Tuesday to receive the prestigious award. The Shaw prize was founded by late Hong Kong media mogul and philanthropist Run Run Shaw in 2002.

Asked about his advice to astronomy enthusiasts in Hong Kong, an area known for its light pollution due to the heavy density of buildings, White, 66, said: “Go camping in the mountains and the [outlying] islands to look at the sky.”

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In the 1970s, White was pursuing a doctoral degree in astronomy at the University of Cambridge. He worked on a typewriter-like device that punched holes on cards to evaluate positions of planets and make calculations. The holes were decoded by a special card reader.

Four decades on, White and his colleagues have developed computer simulations that model convincingly the formation of galaxies in the universe.

One landmark project is the Millennium Simulation, carried out in 2005, which captured the evolution of cosmic structures 10 million years after the Big Bang – a prevailing theory on the origin of the universe – until the present time.

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Despite his many contributions to the field, White said mankind knew “zero” about the universe, and the sky was the limit in pursuit of knowledge about space.

“I still would like to find out what dark matter is,” he said, referring to another scientific riddle he hoped to solve with current projects. Dark matter is a hypothetical substance that has never been physically observed, but is theorised to be behind many astronomical abnormalities noted by scientists.

“We hope to design the right kind of numerical experiments to get good predictions and right observations … that might help us to better understand this,” White said.

White is one of five winners of the Shaw Prize, awarded in three categories – astronomy, life science and medicine, and mathematical sciences.

The annual prize is dedicated to “furthering societal progress, enhancing quality of life, and enriching humanity’s spiritual civilisation.” Each carries a monetary award of US$1.2 million.