Prestigious Packard Fellowship Supports Duke Cosmologist in Answering Questions About What Makes Up the Universe

Five-year award goes to Assistant Professor Dan Scolnic

Assistant Professor of Physics Dan Scolnic joined the faculty in 2019 as one of two professors in a new astrophysics program at Duke.
Assistant Professor of Physics Dan Scolnic joined the faculty in 2019 as one of two professors in a new astrophysics program at Duke.

If you ask Duke assistant professor Dan Scolnic what amazes him about cosmology, he’ll say, it’s “really the only field in all of science where you could stand in front of people and say, ‘we understand 5% of what’s going on,’ and still think we’re kind of smart.”

That’s because all the stars, planets and galaxies that scientists see today make up just 5% of the universe. The other 95% is made of mysterious stuff called dark matter and dark energy that scientists can’t see or detect directly.

Scolnic says scientists may be on the brink of learning something new about dark energy, the unknown substance that makes the universe expand at an ever faster rate. And now, with help from a five-year, $875,000 grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, he hopes to be one of them.

Scolnic is one of 22 scientists to receive a 2019 Packard Fellowship in Science and Engineering, awarded each year “to allow the nation's most promising early career professors to pursue their science and engineering research with few funding restrictions and limited paperwork requirements.”

With the fellowship, Scolnic aims to understand a puzzle. Scientists trying to figure out how fast the universe is expanding at different points in its lifetime have run into a problem: the measurements don’t line up. Today’s universe seems to be expanding outward faster than expected based on measurements of the early universe’s expansion shortly after the Big Bang.

He and his colleagues are trying to figure out what could explain the discrepancy. By analyzing the light from thousands of exploding stars called Type Ia supernovae and combining data from different telescopes, they’re developing ways to precisely measure the size of the universe today and better understand what’s pushing it apart.

Each year, the Packard Foundation invites 50 of the nation’s top universities to nominate two early-career professors each from their institutions.

Scolnic is the fourth early-career professor from Duke to be named a Packard Fellow, and the first from the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences. Previous Duke awardees include Chay Kuo (Cell Biology, 2008), Lingchong You (Biomedical Engineering, 2006) and Erich Jarvis (Neurobiology, 2000).