An Australian astronomer, Professor Ken Freeman, has won the 2012 Australian Prime Minister’s Prize for Science – more than 40 years after revolutionising his field with his research on dark matter.
Freeman helped bring the concept of dark matter – the theory that most of the universe is made up of material that cannot be seen – into the mainstream after writing a paper in 1970 on the topic. He said that at the time he was doing the research, astronomers believed galaxies only consisted of stars, gas and dust.
Freeman was the first to calculate that the luminous, visible matter in galaxies was only a small fraction of their overall mass. The clear mismatch revealed there was more gravity acting in the universe than scientists could account for and that therefore there had to be a vast quantity of unaccounted for mass.
Although dark matter is still one of the great mysteries of space, the theory has been accepted into mainstream astronomy and dark matter is thought to make up as much as 97% of the Milky Way and 84% of the universe overall.
Freeman, the Duffield Professor of Astronomy at the Australian National University – Mt Stromlo Observatory, is also famous for his work on galactic archaeology, which aims to solve the mystery of how the universe came into being.
“It’s a very exciting thing to win and I certainly wasn’t expecting it to happen,” he said of the A$300,000 (US$300,000) prize. “It’s exciting for me personally but it’s also the first time astronomy has got one of these and it affirms basic science.”
Astronomer and Nobel prize winner Professor Brian Schmidt, also at the Australian National University, said Freeman had done more than any other single Australian astronomer to help advance scientists’ understanding of the cosmos.
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