MPG Press Release

Shaw Prize for Simon D.M. White

Max Planck Director receives award for numerical simulations of structure formation in the early universe

May 24, 2017

This year's Shaw Prize for Astronomy goes to Simon D.M. White, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics, for his contributions to understanding structure formation in the Universe. The Shaw Prize is awarded annually by the Shaw Prize Foundation in Hong Kong in the life sciences, mathematics and astronomy. A Gold Medal and prize money of 1.2 million US dollars will be awarded in each area at a ceremony in Hong Kong on September 26 2017.

The universe was born 13.8 billion years ago - in the so-called Big Bang. But how did the cosmos we observe today, with its billions of galaxies of different shapes and sizes, develop from this enormous explosion? Apparently, as Simon White and his collaborator Martin Rees first hypothesised in 1978, gigantic clouds of material separated from expansion and fell back on themselves under the influence of gravity when the universe was just a few hundred million years old, and galaxies then formed as gas cooled and condensed at the centres of immense halos of the mysterious dark matter which are still only detected through their gravitational effects.

MPA director Simon White Zoom Image
MPA director Simon White

Over four decades, Simon White, his students and collaborators have simulated this scenario with ever increasing realism on the largest available computers. A well known recent example was the Millennium Simulation, carried out in 2005 on the Max Planck Society's Garching supercomputer in collaboration with Volker Springel and others. This tracked the development of structure and the formation of 20 million galaxies throughout a region of space more than two billion light-years across.

In fact, such simulations produce a kind of cosmic net in which matter accumulates in and flows along filaments on the edges of gigantic bubbles. This is precisely the structure that astronomers observe in the real universe on very large scales. The work of White and his colleagues demonstrates how such complex structure develops from the simple, near-uniform conditions initially hypothesised, but now directly observed, to be present in the early Universe.

Simon White was born in 1951 in Ashford, England. He earned a first degree in mathematics from Jesus College, Cambridge in 1972, a MSc in astronomy from the University of Toronto in 1974, and a PhD from Cambridge University in 1977. In the 1980s, White teamed up with Marc Davis, George Efstathiou and Carlos Frenk to show that the "Cold Dark Matter" theory (CDM) was consistent with the formation of galaxies and other cosmological structures. In the 1990s he, together with Julio Navarro and Carlos Frenk, showed that all dark matter halos have a simple "universal" structure which can be predicted from the material content and geometry of the Universe and current ideas about its very early evolution. White was Lindemann Fellow at the Astronomy Department of the University of California at Berkeley in 1977 and 1978, and Research Fellow at Churchill College, Cambridge from 1978 to 1980. He was then a Senior Fellow at the Space Sciences Laboratory of UC Berkeley (1980-1984) before joining the Faculty of Astronomy at the University of Arizona (1984 to 1991). In 1991 White returned to the Institute of Astronomy in Cambridge and was director of the European Association for Research in Astronomy from 1992 to 1994. Since 1994, White is director at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching.

In addition to numerous other prizes and awards, Simon D.M. White has won the Helen B. Warner Prize from the American Astronomy Society, the Dannie Heineman Prize for Astrophysics, a gold medal from the Royal Astronomical Society, and the Gruber Cosmology Prize.


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