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27. November 2008 19:00

ESF awards 10th European Latsis Prize to Simon White on astrophysics achievement

The European Science Foundation (ESF) has awarded this year’s European Latsis Prize to Professor Simon White, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics, for his outstanding contribution to the field of astrophysics.

The European Latsis Prize, entering its 10th year, is valued at 100,000 Swiss francs (€65,000). The Prize is funded by the Geneva-based Latsis Foundation and awarded by the ESF to an individual or a research group who, in the opinion of their peers, has made the greatest contribution to a particular field of European research.

“It’s a wonderful surprise especially this is the first Latsis Prize awarded to the astrophysics field,” commented White. “I am looking forward to the International Year of Astronomy in 2009 (IYA2009) as astronomy is one of the easiest fields to make contact with the public. People are enthusiastic about space, the beginning of the universe, the history and life on other planets.”  The European Latsis Prize 2008 was awarded during the Annual Assembly of the European Science Foundation on Thursday 27 November 2008, in Stockholm, Sweden.

The achievements of Professor White in astrophysics are well recognised – he is a Fellow of the Royal Society, Foreign Associate of the USA National Academy of Sciences, Fellow of the “Deutsche Akademie der Naturforscher Leopoldina”. Since the 1970s, and especially since building up the Max-Planck Institute for Astrophysics as a leading European and World centre of theoretical astrophysics, White has been at the forefront of understanding galaxy formation and evolution.

White has pioneered simulations of the evolution of the large-scale cosmic matter distribution and the Cold Dark Matter (CDM) paradigm that has become a major ingredient of the currently accepted “standard” view of cosmic history. His research showed that CDM dominated cosmologies can explain the large-scale structure seen in surveys of the galaxy distribution, whereas alternatives like Hot Dark Matter are less probable.

Simon’s works has been “extremely influential and I am very happy to see that he is being chosen,” commented Professor Ian Halliday, the president of the ESF. “There was a feeling that Europe has made a lot of big investment in physics and astronomy. It’s a timely recognition of the field.”

White’s reception of the European Latsis Prize marks the tenth year anniversary of the prestigious award.  Former recipients of the European Latsis Prize are Jürgen Baumert in 1999 for "Research and/or Innovation in Education",  Kenneth Holmes in 2000 for "Molecular Structure",  André Berger in 2001 for "Climate Research", Annette Karmiloff-Smith in 2002 for "Cognitive Sciences", Colin Renfrew in 2003 for "Archaeology", Amos Bairoch in 2004 for "Bioinformatics", Donal Bradley in 2005 for "Nano-Engineering",  Rainer Bauböck in 2006 for "Immigration and Social Cohesion in Modern Societies",  and Willi Kalender in 2007 for "Medical Imaging".

“They are a very distinguished set of prize winners. One of the strengths of the European Latsis Prize is the flexibility of its subjects.  It moves from science to social science. It sends clear messages about all these important areas of science. So that flexibility I believe is the real positive thing in the prize,” added Professor Halliday. The chosen theme for the European Latsis Prize in 2009 will be “The Human Brain and the Human Mind”.

This year’s European Latsis Prize ceremony also coincides with the announcement of the ESF’s involvement in the International Year of Astronomy in 2009.  The ESF has agreed with the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to become an official partner for the International Year of Astronomy (IYA) in 2009. The partnership will see the ESF’s involvement in a series of activities to give a significant boost to the international initiative which aims to stimulate worldwide interest in astronomy and science, especially among young people.

“I think this would provide another opportunity to reach out and get people involved in science in general,” commented Professor White. “I think astrophysics is the motor to get the general public, the young people interested in physical questions. To make them think about physical questions for their own sake which divorce from immediate applications.”

Notes to editors

Simon White’s works

Professor White studied Mathematics at Jesus College, University of Cambridge and Astronomy at the University of Toronto. In 1977 he obtained a doctorate in Astronomy under Donald Lynden-Bell from the University of Cambridge. After several years at the University of California, Berkeley, the Steward Observatory of the University of Arizona and the University of Cambridge, in 1994 he was appointed a Scientific Member of the Max Planck Society and Director of the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching. White is also Research Professor at the University of Arizona, Guest Professor at the University of Durham, Honorary Professor at the Ludwig-Maximilians University in Munich and at the Astronomical Observatories of Shanghai and Beijing.

Using a combination of ever more sophisticated simulations of the growth of structure in the dark matter distribution with various approaches to treating the complex physics of ordinary matter, White and his colleagues have had an enormous impact worldwide, establishing the so-called ‘hierarchical formation’ paradigm of galaxy evolution. His contribution to building up his group and institute has enhanced substantially the reputation of European science in this area.

White pioneered simulations of the evolution of the large-scale cosmic matter distribution and the Cold Dark Matter (CDM) paradigm that has become a major ingredient of the currently accepted “standard” view of cosmic history. His research showed that CDM dominated cosmologies can explain the large-scale structure seen in surveys of the galaxy distribution, whereas alternatives like Hot Dark Matter are excluded.

The dark matter is not made of light neutrinos, but rather of a new kind of neutral elementary particle yet to be detected directly on Earth. This research has attracted much attention since the early 1980s when White was one of a group of young astrophysicists at Berkeley who first recognised that the large-scale structure of our Universe can be explained by Cold Dark Matter.

This was a revolutionary step at that time when new data were beginning to show patterns in the galaxy distribution that were inconsistent with previous ideas, for example, that the dark matter is made of faint stars or neutrinos. The critical difference is in the formation sequence of galaxies and clusters of galaxies. In the earlier models, galaxy clusters form first and then fragment into galaxies.

In the new Cold Dark Matter picture, small objects form first and merge together to make larger and larger dark matter objects. At the centres of these dark halos, trace amounts of ordinary matter cool, condense and turn into visible galaxies, as first outlined by White and his collaborator, Martin Rees, 15 years earlier. These galaxies and their halos then aggregate into galaxy clusters, producing a pattern which is an excellent match to the survey data, provided the dark matter is assumed to be cold. Since the first simulation by White and his colleagues, these ideas have gained support from ever more detailed calculations (many of them carried out by White’s group, most recently the epochal Millennium Simulation) and from a wide range of new observational data on the properties of cosmic structures. A modified version of their ideas has become the standard model for cosmic structure formation on large scales.

These days White continues to simulate the formation of galaxies and larger structures, and to seek ways to clarify the nature of dark matter. He is interested in the structure seen in the Cosmic Microwave background and is active in preparing software for the European Space Agency’s soon to be launched Planck Surveyor mission. He also participates in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey project in order to characterise the systematic properties of the galaxy population and in the Dutchled Low Frequency Array project to study structure in the pregalactic Universe.

More information on the Latsis Prize please click here

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