Jaan Einasto received the Gruber Foundation Cosmology Prize
The 2014 Gruber Foundation Cosmology Prize recognises honorary doctor of the University of Tartu, alumni of the university, astrophysicist Jaan Einasto, Kenneth Freeman, R. Brent Tully, and Sidney van den Bergh for their individual roles in the development of Near Field Cosmology — laying the foundation in our understanding of the structure and composition of the nearby Universe.
The Cosmology Prize honours a leading cosmologist, astronomer, astrophysicist or scientific philosopher for theoretical, analytical, conceptual or observational discoveries leading to fundamental advances in our understanding of the Universe. This year’s prize will be presented to Einasto, Freeman, Tully, and van den Bergh in a ceremony at Yale University on 1 October, 2014.
"Their decades-long observations and analyses of relatively local galaxies have allowed cosmologists — including themselves — to investigate the evolution of the Universe on the largest scales," said Wendy Freedman, Chair of the Selection Advisory Board to the Prize.
Their award-winning work on the nearby Universe quietly emerged during a period when cutting-edge cosmology was focused instead on the farthest reaches of the Universe. As recently as the 1920s, astronomers were unsure whether anything existed beyond the realm of stars we call the Milky Way galaxy, but then came two key discoveries.
The first, by Ernst Öpik (1922) and Edwin Hubble (1925), is that other galaxies do indeed exist — and today we know they number well over 100 billion. The second, by Hubble (1929), is that those galaxies are, on the whole, moving away from one another — according to general relativity, carried along by the expansion of space itself. Because light from an object takes time to reach us, astronomers realised they might be able to trace the evolution of the Universe by looking into the distant past — by examining the infant Universe and, epoch by epoch, working their way forward.
This year’s Gruber recipients, however, stayed closer to home — and the present. Their work has allowed cosmologists to examine the mature Universe and work their way backwards. Operating independently of one another, the four astronomers studied our Milky Way galaxy, the galaxies in the Local Group, and other nearby objects, devising strategies and making discoveries that have led to two fundamental changes in our interpretation of the Universe:
- On the largest scales, the Universe resembles a web of neurons — vast filaments of galaxies and superclusters of galaxies separated by even vaster voids.
- This structure would not be possible if the Universe didn’t have an invisible gravitational component — what we now call dark matter.
The work begun by Einasto, Freeman, Tully, and van den Bergh is sometimes called Near Field Cosmology, a seemingly paradoxical name that nonetheless encapsulates their collective vision: To study the Universe on the largest scale, think small.