Isabel Sands

The fourth annual Gruber Cosmology Prize Conference took place at Yale last Friday, bringing together the leading cosmologists from around the world.

At the ceremony in Luce Hall, astronomer Sandra Faber — who has played a leading role in advancing scientists’ understanding of dark matter — received the prestigious Gruber Prize in Cosmology, which includes $500,000 and a gold medal. Awarded annually by the Gruber Foundation at Yale, the prize goes to people who make fundamental advances in the study of the universe, according to the foundation’s website.

“[Faber’s research] has transformed the field … From the early 1970s onward, she has defined this field and trained a large number of people in it,” said Yale physics professor Nikhil Padmanabhan, one of the conference organizers. Faber, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, has contributed research in nearly every subject under the umbrella of galaxy formation and evolution.

The conference, whose theme was “Celebrating What We Have Learned in Galaxy Formation,” also included a series of lectures by leading astronomers and cosmologists, all pertaining to Faber’s research.

Topics of the lectures included black hole mergers, dark matter and evolution of galaxies. One highlight was Yale astronomy professor Pieter van Dokkum’s lecture, in which he used peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to explain the debate over dark matter.

Yale astronomy professor Marla Geha, who co-organized the conference with Padmanabhan, said the organizers looked for people who speak dynamically about cutting-edge cosmology, who do research at the forefront of the field and who have strong connections to Faber.

“That’s the easy part, because pretty much anyone working on galaxy formation has had some connection,” Geha said. “Three of the speakers were her students, her postdocs and two took her class as graduate students.”

Her early work in observational astronomy provided evidence for the existence of dark matter — the mysterious, undetectable substance that makes up the vast majority of matter in the universe.

Later, Faber and her collaborators developed a theory that explains how cold dark matter influences the structure of galaxies. She played a leading role in the construction of both the Keck and Hubble telescopes and most recently served as principal investigator in a project that used the Hubble Space Telescope to gather information about young galaxies.

The curiosity that propelled Faber through her career began early in her life.

“My dad had a pair of binoculars, and we would just stand, looking,” she recalled. “It was easy to ask questions … ‘Where did that star come from? Why is there a band of stars in the sky?’ It’s obvious. It transports you beyond yourself. It’s very romantic.”

Patricia Gruber, the president of the Gruber Foundation, described how Faber’s body of work embodies the spirit of the Gruber Cosmology Prize. She said her late husband, who co-founded the foundation with her, thought about many of the same initial questions as Faber.

“So that was, in a way, part of the origin of this prize. Should we know our place in the universe? Can we find out more about it?” she added.

Prizes and fellowships from the Gruber Foundation have expanded funding for the sciences at Yale, specifically astronomy, cosmology, neuroscience and genetics, Gruber said. She noted that in addition to the Gruber Conference and Prize, the foundation supports the Gruber Fellowship, which provides $50,000 to incoming graduate students.

“It’s always good to have a prestigious fellowship that attracts people to come to Yale,” said Duncan Campbell GRD ’17, a member of the first class of Gruber Fellows. “The fact that it’s conjoined with Yale hosting the Gruber Conference is amazing because every year there’s one of these.”

Yale Center for Astronomy and Physics Director Meg Urry said it was notable that Faber began her talk by mentioning Beatrice Tinsley, a Yale astronomer who led pioneering research in the field of galaxy evolution.

In her address, Faber said the conference was both useful to gather leading cosmologists and necessary in the long term.

“Cosmology will be the most important discipline for the destiny of mankind,” she said.

The Gruber Foundation first partnered with Yale in 2011.

Isabel Sands | i.sands@yale.edu