Sri Lankan born cosmologist, Dr. Hiranya Peiris has been awarded the 2012 Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) Fowler Prize for Early Achievement in Astronomy. Currently attached to the University College of London, Dr. Peiris received the prize in recognition of her noteworthy contributions to astronomy at an early stage in her research career.
“I am delighted and humbled by the award of this prize,” she told the Sunday Times. “It is a great honour to join the ranks of the previous recipients. I don't do science to win prizes, but such recognition of one's work is very nice if it comes.”
RAS awards a second prize for Geophysics, which this year went to D. Matthew Owens for his work in the field of solar-terrestrial physics. The two prizes are awarded annually, ‘to individuals who have made a particularly noteworthy contribution to these two sciences at an early stage of their research career, and to recognise this sufficiently early to give the career impetus.’
They are named in honour of two of the Royal Astronomical Society's most distinguished fellows, Ralph and Peter Fowler and after the prize’s founder Rosemary Fowler. Each award comes with a cash prize of £500 and is given to a recipient for noteworthy work carried out in the UK or with facilities in which the UK has a recognised interest.
Dr. Peiris has been hailed as one of the best minds of her generation and her field of interest is cosmology and the study of the early universe. “I am working on trying to understand the origin of all the structure in the Universe. This involves testing the physics of the Big Bang, especially with the aid of the cosmic microwave background data from the Planck satellite,” she said, comparing the cosmic microwave background data to a ‘baby picture’ of the universe when it was only 380,000 years old (the universe is now said to be 13.7 billion years old).
The citation on the RAS website praises her ‘very significant contributions to the WMAP Cosmic Microwave Background project, particularly concerning constraints on the inflationary models that describe the rapid expansion of the cosmos shortly after the Big Bang. In addition her contributions to astrophysics more broadly include the analysis of large scale structure data, the development of statistical methods and the field of Galactic structure.’
The award is the most recent in a handful of other honours. Dr. Peiris has previously been awarded many competitive post-doctoral fellowships (Fermi, Hubble, STFC Advanced Fellowship) and became a Philip Leverhulme prize-winner in 2009 and now is on the Faculty of University College London.
She says cosmology is an exciting field to be in today, particularly of because of the extraordinary data being collected even now. “The Planck data are beautiful - they are a leap forward in sensitivity and resolution from the previous best map of the fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background. They make possible much more stringent tests of our cosmological model.” Astronomy enthusiasts can look forward to getting a glimpse at this new data in early 2013 upon its public release.