Autobiography of Charles L Bennett
My father was a graduate student in physics at Rutgers University in New Jersey when I was born in 1956. I was two when my family moved to Bethesda, Maryland, where I grew up with an older sister and younger brother. During high school, I tinkered with electronic circuitry, which led to my “ham” radio hobby. I built my own transmitter and antennas. Then, using a small telescope gift from my grandmother, I explored the wonders of the night sky. During summers as a teen, I worked repairing broken radios, phonographs, and televisions at a local TV store. This experience helped me get a summer job at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, developing astronomical instrumentation.
I earned a Physics and Astronomy Bachelors degree in 1978 at the University of Maryland and I went on to graduate school under Bernie Burke at MIT. As I was nearing the end of my time at MIT, I went to a colloquium by MIT Professor Rai Weiss. He talked about a NASA project called the Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE), which was fascinating because it seemed fundamentally important. I asked Weiss if there was any way that I could participate on this project and he replied that one of the three instruments needed someone to guide its day-to-day development at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Thanks to the COBE team and especially Mike Hauser and John Mather, I got the job.
I met Renée, the love of my life, while at MIT. Within a one month period in 1984, I completed my physics PhD in Boston, married Renée in Los Angeles, moved to an apartment in Maryland, and started work as an astrophysicist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.
I concentrated my COBE efforts on the Differential Microwave Radiometers (DMR) instrument, and soon became the deputy principal investigator. I led an effort to improve the sensitivity of the DMR radiometers by re-working its mixers. Not only was this effort successful, it made a crucial difference in the discovery of cosmic microwave background temperature variations across the sky (“anisotropy”). I also led the DMR data analysis effort at Goddard; led one of the suite of four discovery papers of the anisotropy; and led the continued analysis of the COBE DMR data with major results in 1994 and in 1996.
Renée worked remotely to complete her MIT PhD in 1987 and then took a faculty position at American University. Our first son, Andrew, was born in August 1987 and Renée began teaching the following month. I took off from work to care for our new baby.
By 1992 the need to follow up on the COBE DMR results was clear. It was widely appreciated that a space mission observing at smaller angular scales would reveal a wealth of cosmological information. By 1993, I was the Principal Investigator on a NASA grant to study a space mission approach with Goddard and Princeton partnered together. The year 1993 marked the beginning of a new project and a new member of our family. Our second son, Ethan, was born in December.
In 1995 NASA issued a call for space mission proposals. I worked day, night, and weekends with Goddard super-engineer Cliff Jackson, the science team, and an engineering team to submit a major proposal to NASA for the Microwave Anisotropy Probe (MAP). Dave Spergel provided theory, while Norm Jarosik, Lyman Page, and Dave Wilkinson and others provided instrument design input.
In April 1996, NASA assigned me the role of Principal Investigator with full budget and authority to direct all aspects of the mission. I involved the Science Team heavily in the hands-on design and development process – an unusual step, but a key to our success. MAP launched on June 30, 2001 and then the instrument began to survey the full sky. The mission was later renamed WMAP, the “W” in memorial to Dave Wilkinson who passed away in 2002.
The Science Team analyzed the first year of high quality data and in February 2003 released major results, providing the age, composition, shape, and history of the universe. While the 13.7 billion year age of the universe dominated the press, many scientists commented to me that WMAP was what made them first believe in the existence of dark energy. Later, the WMAP data would reveal new aspects of the polarization of the cosmic microwave background and its implications for the history of the universe. Gary Hinshaw led the data analysis efforts and Dave Spergel led the theory efforts.
On January 1, 2005 I became a professor at Johns Hopkins University, where I continue my WMAP work, teach, train students, and initiate new research. My family moved from Bethesda to Baltimore in 2007.
I conducted, but WMAP has been a symphony, orchestrated and performed by many individual virtuoso contributions.
28 September 2010, Hong Kong