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Duke physics professor wins prestigious award for dark energy research

When starting his career, Daniel Scolnic shot for the moon. Now he has the accolades to verify that he reached the stars. 

Scolnic, assistant professor of physics, was recognized with the Packard Fellowship, which seeks to “allow the nation’s most promising professors to pursue science and engineering research early in their careers with few funding restrictions and limited reporting requirements,” per the foundation’s website. Scolnic graduated with his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 2013, only a handful of years ago, where his thesis focused on an analysis of cosmology. 

Scolnic didn’t necessarily anticipate receiving such an esteemed prize in his career. He said that though he had known about the prize for a long time, he knew it was competitive, so he never “put much thought into getting it.” Indeed, Scolnic had not even developed a stable research group when he received notification. 

“I was extremely surprised, and thrilled when I found out,” he said. “My department chair, who it turns out knew before I did, called me into his office to supposedly go through new funding opportunities with me. I thought I was going in for a spoonful of advice, and instead, I got one of the best prizes a young faculty member could get.”

Scolnic aspires to determine the veracity of the Hubble Constant theory, which dictates that the universe grows at a set rate. His prior research has come into conflict with the Hubble Constant, so Scolnic seeks to determine if and how his math is correct. The Hubble Constant has existed as a dominant thought in the physics world since 1927 yet has recently encountered serious criticism, so an upheaval of the status quo would irrevocably alter the research of theorists globally. 

“Either we are wrong, or theory is wrong. With the grant, I can really tune my research group to seeing this through, as I think it’s as exciting as it gets for our field,” he said. 

Scolnic specifically plans to use this grant to “make a cosmic growth chart of the universe,” an admittedly ambitious goal. Further complicating his mission is the fact that only 5% of the universe, such as stars, planets and galaxies, constitute the sort of cosmology fodder found in science fiction. The remaining 95% falls into the categories of either dark matter, which is tangible, or dark energy, which is not. Scolnic specializes in the dissection of dark energy, and he intends to track its movement. 

“I try to find as many exploding stars called supernovae as I can and use those as measuring sticks across the universe, to figure out how big the universe was at different ages of the universe,” he said.

A fascination with space drew him to an undergraduate research lab initially. 

“Thirteen years later, I’m still working on the same topic, and all that’s changed is now I get to be the one taking the observations,” he said. 

Scolnic is grateful for the “amazing resources” to go toward his work in this “golden era of cosmology.” With all of these avenues to pursue novel concepts, Scolnic asserts that anyone, not just those with a strong foundation in math, can contribute to space physics. 

“The idea of the only successful people being like Albert Einstein, with just a pen and a paper writing down equations, is outdated,” he said. “There are lots of other skills you can have to do well, and the field is now wide enough to bring in lots of different kinds of people. If you have got the passion, go for it.”

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