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Planck Collaboration Wins 2018 Gruber Cosmology Prize

Scientists in Berkeley Lab’s Physics, Computational Research and NERSC divisions played integral roles in the Planck mission

May 15, 2018

Contact: Linda Vu, lvu@lbl.gov, 510.495.2402

Planck Team C3

Planck analysis group with CMB Planck data. Left to right: Reijo Keskitalo, Aaron Collier, Julian Borrill and Ted Kisner. (Photo by Roy Kaltschmidt, Berkeley Lab)


The Planck Team—including researchers in Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory’s (Berkeley Lab’s) Computational Research (CRD) and Physics divisions—and its Principal Investigators Nazzareno Mandolesi and Jean-Loup Puget, have been awarded the 2018 Gruber Cosmology Prize.

The Gruber International Prize Program honors individuals in the fields of Cosmology, Genetics and Neuroscience, whose groundbreaking work provides new models that inspire and enable fundamental shifts in knowledge and culture.  From 2009 to 2013 the European Space Agency’s Planck observatory collected data that has provided cosmology with the definitive description of the universe on the largest and smallest scales.

“These measurements, have led to the determination of cosmological parameters (matter content, geometry, and evolution of the universe) to unprecedented precision,” the Gruber Prize citation reads.

The 2018 Cosmology Prize recipients will divide the $500,000 annual award three ways. The Planck team will receive $250,000; while Mandolesi and Puget, as the principal investigators on the observatory’s two instruments, will each receive $125,000. The Prize will be awarded on August 20, at the General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union, in Vienna, Austria.

Berkeley Lab’s Deep Roots in the Planck Collaboration

Planck Cluster

This is a picture of Mendel, a Cray scientific computing cluster at NERSC named for the father of modern genetics, Gregor Johann Mendel. The cluster was used by the international Planck collaboration for data analysis. (Photo by Roy Kaltschmidt, Berkeley Lab)


Berkeley Lab played a deep role in Planck’s success, beginning with the 1992 proposal by Berkeley Lab’s George Smoot and then-visiting Italian scientists Marco Bersanelli and Mandolesi, to build a Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) survey satellite dubbed COBRAS (Cosmic Background Radiation Anisotropy Satellite). Later combined with a complementary proposal called SAMBA (Satellite for Measurement of Background Anisotropies), COBRAS/SAMBA eventually became Planck. All three were members of the Planck team and Mandolesi served as principal investigator of the mission.    

Martin White

Martin White, Berkeley Lab Physics Division

Planck was a joint project between the European Space Agency and NASA, and one of the major U.S. contributions to this international collaboration was in data analysis. For nearly two decades, Berkeley Lab’s Julian Borrill served as the U.S. Planck Team’s computational systems architect, a role that earned him a NASA Exceptional Public Achievement Medal in 2016.  Other key members of the Planck team at Berkeley include Theodore Kisner and Reijo Keskitalo, computer science engineers in CRD; Shirley Ho, senior scientist in the Physics Division and Cooper Siegel Associate Professor at Carnegie Mellon University; and Martin White, Berkeley Lab Faculty Senior Scientist in the Physics Division and a professor in the Physics and Astronomy departments at UC Berkeley.  Kisner and Keskitalo implemented the supercomputing framework for Planck data analysis and received numerous NASA Public Service and Group Achievement awards. White served on the Planck Editorial Board and chaired the US Internal Advisory Board on Planck, and both White and Ho shared in the NASA group achievement award for Planck in 2010. 

Borrill’s efforts in support of Planck have included everything from directing the development and deployment of the massively parallel software needed for Planck’s most computationally challenging data simulation and analysis tasks, to drafting the memorandum of understanding between NASA and U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) that ensured that Planck would have access to the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center (NERSC) throughout the mission. NERSC, located at Berkeley Lab, is the primary scientific computing facility for DOE’s Office of Science. Borrill’s work on Planck was supported by NASA and by the DOE’s Office of Science through its High Energy Physics program.

“NERSC supported the entire international Planck effort,” says Borrill, who heads Berkeley Lab’s Computational Cosmology Center and has a joint appointment at UC Berkeley's Space Sciences Laboratory. “Planck was given an unprecedented multi-year allocation of computational resources in a 2007 agreement between DOE and NASA, which amounted to tens of millions of hours of massively parallel processing, plus the necessary data-storage and data-transfer resources. These resources were mission-critical for Planck data analysis.”

“In many ways, Planck was a turning-point for cosmic microwave background research. This was the first time that we had wide-area, high-resolution, high signal to noise, multifrequency observations that allowed us to measure the basic parameters of the universe with such incredible precision,” says White. 

He notes that Planck also opened up entire new fields of cosmology research. “As CMB photons travel from the edge of the universe to Earth, they traverse a bunch of stuff along the way—like galaxies, stars, black holes, planets, etc.—that can alter their path. By taking that pattern of deflection, we now can map out all of the matter that’s between us and CMB. Planck represented a big step forward on this front and it’s going to be a bigger and bigger part of CMB studies in the future,” White adds.   

“The Gruber Cosmology Prize is a fitting award in recognition of the incredible scientific achievements of Planck, and we are proud of the role Berkeley Lab has played in its success,” says Natalie Roe, Director of Berkeley Lab’s Physics Division.   “We are continuing to build on the scientific foundation laid by Planck as we plan the next generation of CMB experiments, seeking to fully plumb the mysteries carried to us from the early Universe by this faint radiation.”

The work was supported by the DOE Office of Science’s Office of High Energy Physics. NERSC is a DOE Office of Science user facility.

More about Berkeley Lab’s Planck Contributions: