John Kovac, Assistant Professor in Harvard's Astronomy and Physics departments, has been awarded the Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award by the National Science Foundation. NSF describes these grants as their "most prestigious awards in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations."
Kovac's research seeks to illuminate the earliest moments of our universe through precision measurements of the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). A theory known as "inflation" explains apparent paradoxes of cosmology by proposing that the universe went through a brief period of massive expansion just a tiny fraction of a second after the Big Bang. If this theory is true, it would leave a faint but observable signature in the polarization of the CMB, emitted 380,000 years later.
Kovac and collaborators have led the search for this signature with a progression of increasingly sensitive microwave telescopes located at the South Pole. DASI, which operated from 2001 through 2003, made the first detection of polarization in the CMB. BICEP1, operating from 2006 through 2008, has set the current tightest constraint on inflation from CMB polarization. Most recently, BICEP2 and the Keck Array have improved on the mapping speed of BICEP1 by more than an order of magnitude.
The focus of Kovac's CAREER grant is to develop techniques and data products to enable sharing of the deep polarization maps produced by DASI, BICEP1, BICEP2, and the Keck Array. "If inflation is correct," says Kovac, "these maps may bear the first direct image of gravitational waves spawned by the same quantum fluctuations that gave birth to our universe." A rigorous description of the signal and noise in the maps will allow them to be used by the scientific community for re-analysis, constraints on alternative cosmological theories, and combination with data from other experiments. In the event of a discovery of evidence for inflation, this work will make possible critical consistency checks between maps from independent telescopes.
The CAREER grant will also support efforts to expand the impact of CMB science to undergraduates and the general public. In an undergraduate astrophysics lab, Kovac's students have built simple microwave telescopes to successfully detect the CMB, replicating work that received in the 1978 Nobel Prize for Physics. With NSF support, this curriculum will be made available to other institutions. Maps of the CMB will also be shared with a broad audience via WorldWide Telescope, a free online software tool for visualization of astronomical datasets, to spread understanding of and curiosity about the origins of our universe.