Physicist Joel Primack honored by American Physical Society

The 2020 Julius Edgar Lilienfeld Prize recognizes Primack for his outstanding contributions to physics and cosmology

Joel Primack
Joel Primack

The American Physical Society (APS) has awarded the 2020 Julius Edgar Lilienfeld Prize to Joel Primack, distinguished professor emeritus of physics at UC Santa Cruz.

The prize recognizes Primack “for seminal contributions to our understanding of the formation of structure in the universe, and for communicating to the public the extraordinary progress in our understanding of cosmology.”

One of the APS’s most prestigious honors, the Lilienfeld Prize recognizes outstanding contributions to physics by a single individual who also has exceptional skills in lecturing to diverse audiences. It includes an award of $10,000, a certificate, and travel expenses to give three lectures at various institutions.

“Joel Primack is an inspired choice for this year’s Lilienfeld Prize,” said APS President-Elect Philip H. Bucksbaum, chair of the 2020 prize selection committee. “Joel has contributed greatly to our current understanding of the fundamental makeup of the universe and has helped to establish the paradigm of cold dark matter cosmology. Equally important is his work as an effective voice for science in the public and in public policy, not only through lectures and books to general audiences, but also through active participation in policy initiatives.”

Primack is one of the main inventors and developers of the modern theory of the universe (cold dark matter with a cosmological constant), which among other things explains why galaxies exist, how they form, and how they are distributed in space. For example, although our own galaxy, the Milky Way, and many other nearby galaxies are disk-shaped, by comparing Hubble Space Telescope images with their supercomputer simulations, Primack and his colleagues recently discovered that most galaxies start out pickle-shaped because of the filamentary distribution of dark matter in the early universe.

A fellow of the APS, American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and California Academy of Sciences, Primack joined the UCSC faculty in 1973. He continues to be very active in research, supervising four graduate students and several senior thesis students, and helping lead several international collaborations and scientific organizations. He has hosted the annual Santa Cruz Galaxy Workshop for many years, and he organized and directed the UC High-Performance AstroComputing Center from 2010 to 2015.

Primack's many awards and honors include the 2016 APS Leo Szilard Lectureship Award for helping establish the Congressional Science and Technology Policy Fellowships. He also started the AAAS Science and Human Rights program and chaired the AAAS Committee on Science, Ethics, and Religion. He was the 2018-19 president of the scientific research honor society Sigma Xi.

In addition to his many publications in scientific journals, Primack coauthored a book on science and public policy with Frank von Hippel, Advice and Dissent: Scientists in the Political Arena (1974), as well as two popular books on modern cosmology and its implications for how we think about global problems, both coauthored with his wife Nancy Abrams: The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos (2006) and The New Universe and the Human Future: How a Shared Cosmology Could Transform the World (2011). He has also written many popular articles and given many lectures for the general public.

The Lilienfeld Prize will be presented to Primack on January 30, 2020, during the APS Annual Leadership Meeting in Washington, D.C.