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Charles Bennett fingerprints the universe

AAAS member Charles Bennett's lifelong career has been a pursuit to solve one of the most enigmatic questions whose speculation is rooted in the Big Bang: "What happened at the very beginning?" (Photo: Johns Hopkins University)

On a humid Florida day on June 30, 2001, the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) that astrophysicist Charles Bennett spent six years tirelessly developing for NASA sat ready for launch on Pad 17B at Kennedy Spaceflight Center.

"I was in the control room thinking, 'we've built this thing so cautiously and gingerly. Now,  we're putting explosives on it,'" he recalls. 

Bennett, 55, known to his friends as Chuck, is a robust loquacious man with salt and pepper speckled hair and beard wearing wire-rimmed glasses. He holds the title of Alumni Centennial Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Seated at his desk, he points behind him to two framed letters signed by NASA.

The first from 1996 informed him that out of 65 proposals, NASA had chosen to build his WMAP satellite. While working at the Goddard Space Flight Center as a Deputy Principal Investigator of Cosmic Background Explorer (COBE), Bennett proposed WMAP as a follow-up satellite. COBE gave the first evidence to the Big Bang, discovering unevenness in the radiation of primordial heat across the sky. In more detailed measurements, WMAP would create what Bennett calls a "fingerprint" of the universe. 

The second letter from 2001 gave Bennett and his team permission to launch WMAP. Despite his worries, it was a picture perfect launch, on time to the second. For seven years, the satellite collected data, providing us with a greater understanding of the universe, past and present, and according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the most accurate age of the universe yet recorded at 13.7 billion years old. 

Development for WMAP was stressful, but a valuable learning experience for Bennett. After countless times of answering the phone to "Chuck, we have a problem," Bennett realized that new difficulties meant more progress. 

"Tomorrow's problem isn't the same as today's," a mantra he applies towards past and present endeavors. 

His lifelong career has been a pursuit to solve one of the most enigmatic questions whose speculation is rooted in the Big Bang theory: "What happened at the very beginning?"  

According to Bennett, in order to understand the universe's present, one must uncover its past, the very premise for the infamous Big Bang. The same is true for Bennett himself, because it's evident that his work today can be pinpointed to influences that began in his past...all the way to middle school. 

It was then that Bennett, a self-declared "nerd-kid" became interested in amateur or "ham" radio. He built his own transmitter and learned Morse Code to earn himself a federal license, and even nabbed awards for speaking with people in every state of the U.S. He and his friends banded together as the "Nights of the Round Table," spending sleepless weekend nights engaged in as many radio conversations as possible in the shortest amount of time to win ham radio contests. 

"Calling this a hobby would have been a gross understatement. This was my life," he says with a chuckle. 

In the ninth grade, his grandmother gave him a telescope for his birthday and so began his interest in space. 

It wasn't until he read Isaac Asimov's, The Universe, in ninth grade that his two fascinations of radio and space linked. When he read about Nobel laureates' Arno Allan Penzias and Robert Wilson, two scientists who discovered heat left over from the Big Bang, cosmic microwave background radiation, he knew immediately that was the type of work he wanted to do with the rest of his life. 

His parents began regularly taking him to Greenbank, West Virginia to see the giant telescopes on display. He attended the University of Maryland for a B.S. in Physics and Astronomy, spent summers working at the Carnegie Institution of Washington's Department of Terrestrial Magnetism and earned his Ph.D in Physics at MIT. After taking a brief break to marry,  he soon after began work at NASA's Goddard Space Center where his own findings would be comparable to that of Penzias and Wilson. 

After twenty-one years at Goddard,  Bennett took an academic position at Johns Hopkins where he now heads up the development of the Cosmology Large Angular Scale Surveyor (CLASS). CLASS is a telescope that will measure the cosmic microwave background radiation to search for a polarization in the sky thought to be from the early universe. It is hoped that CLASS will help prove the theory of "inflation," the idea that the universe expanded greatly in a very short time, by "seeking the polarization pattern from inflation's gravitational waves," according to Bennett. 

Despite initial beliefs that the instrument would be too difficult to develop, beliefs that Bennett steadfastly ignored, CLASS will be placed in the Atacama Desert in Chile,  one of the "highest and driest" places on Earth. 

Bennett describes the individual components of the instrument with enthusiasm. Much like the middle-schooler tinkering with radios and who described his hobbies as his "life," his work nowadays still is his passion, taking a back seat only to his family.  

"I love puzzles. This work is full of puzzles."

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AAAS member Charles Bennett's lifelong career has been a pursuit to solve one of the most enigmatic questions whose speculation is rooted in the Big Bang: "What happened at the very beginning?" (Photo: Johns Hopkins University)
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