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Kavli Prizes Honor Achievements Spanning Frontiers of Science

A Santa Barbara man is a sponsor of the awards, which will go to seven scientists in the areas of nanoscience, neuroscience and astrophysics.

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Fred Kavli of Santa Barbara, left, and Edvard and May-Britt Moser run the Kavli Institute for Systems Neuroscience at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, which opened in August 2007. (Mariann Dybdahl / Adresseavisen photo)

Quasars, carbon nanotubes, quantum dots. Do they conjure up daunting memories of high school physics? For seven scientists who each recently won a prestigious Kavli Prize, advancements in these concepts and others led them to a hefty share in one of three $1 million prizes.

The men, from Japan, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States, were named the first-ever Kavli Laureates in a ceremony at the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters on May 28 by academy President Ole Didrik Lærum.

The announcement was broadcast live to Columbia University in New York, where Kavli Foundation founder Fred Kavli, who lives in Santa Barbara, was watching.

It kicked off the first World Science Festival in New York. 

At a ceremony at the Oslo Concert Hall on Sept. 9, the HRH Crown Price Haakon will present the prizes to the scientists. Each will receive a gold medal, a scroll and, of course, cash.

“(The Kavli Prize) lays itself open to awarding people for important achievements that are established, but also things that are closer to the cusp,” said Kavli Foundation representative Jim Cohen, referring to some of the cutting-edge accomplishments recognized this year by the prize committees.

The bi-annual prizes are designed to recognize innovative research and discovery as well as inspire youth curiosity in the three fields that their namesake deemed the triple threat within scientific advancement: astrophysics, neuroscience and nanotechnology.

Kavli grew up in Norway and found his inspiration to pursue science from watching the aurora borealis light up the night sky. In 2000, he started the Kavli Foundation, which now works in conjunction with the NASL and the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research to award the Kavli Prizes.

His devotion to science can be seen locally at UCSB’s Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics. In 2001 he donated $7.5 million to the institute, which then built an additional wing and was re-named to reflect Kavli’s donation.

At the announcement ceremony in Oslo, scientists from the three fields explained what each winner accomplished. Lærum recognized Maarten Schmidt and Donald Lynden-Bell, winners of the astrophysics prize, for “their seminal contributions to understanding the nature of quasars.”

Schmidt, a professor at the California Institute of Technology, helped decipher the mystery of quasars by analyzing the spectra of light released from the radio wave-emitting bodies, which were originally thought to be stars.

Dr. Maggie Aderin-Pocock explained that the spectra revealed to Schmidt that the star was billions of light years away. The mystery, however, remained. If they were that far away, how were they pumping the huge amount of energy needed to appear so bright?

Lynden-Bell, a professor at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, joined the equation when he proposed a theory: Quasars aren’t stars but actually galaxies with black holes in the center, sucking in all matter around them and creating a hurricane.

The energy so brightly visible from Earth, he found, is the result of the frictional force generated by the black hole.

Moving from the very large to the incredibly tiny, the recipients of the Nanoscience Prize were recognized by Lærum for their “large impact in the development of the nanoscience field of the zero and one-dimensional nanostructures in physics, chemistry and biology.”

To clarify, Louis E. Brus, a professor at Columbia University, and Sumio Iijima, a professor at Meijo University in Japan, have discovered microscopic structures within cells that may revolutionize materials technology.

Among their discoveries are the man-made carbon nanotubes, which are said to be stronger than steel, and quantum dots, which are like tiny light bulbs that may illuminate further understanding at a nano level.

“(Quantum) dots are a bit like a new electric light bulb,” Dr. Mark Miodownik said. “The cell is dark, and we can’t really see inside it at the moment. These little quantum dots are allowing us to see what is going on in the cell.” 

Finally, on a similar scale, Lærum announced the three neuroscience winners, Sten Grillner, a professor at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, Thomas Jessel, a professor at Columbia University and Pasko Rakic, a professor at Yale University School of Medicine.

The men were recognized for their cross-species research in explaining how cell networks in the brain and spinal cord are similarly governed, including a focus on sensory motor loops that control general motion such as walking.

Discovering a central mechanism that controls motion may come with a huge possible application: creating movement in paraplegics.

“These fundamental mechanisms, which allow the cells to differentiate themselves into one type of cell or another and to connect themselves properly, have been fundamental to an understanding of the mechanisms that develop the spinal cord and also the brain,” Dr. Daniel Glaser said.

A focus at the Oslo ceremony was on the sustainability of the awards in a sense of future research, clarifying that they aren’t meant to be the career-finale to the recipients. Much of the technology may even pose drastic risks. The prizes recognize advancements that most likely will continue to evolve.

“These prizes are for curiosity-driven breakthroughs and basic research results, which as Kavli says, if it’s good research, always bring something in the end,” said professor Arne Skjeltorp, chair of the Nanoscience Prize.

All awards will be officially handed over at the ceremony Sept. 9 in Oslo. Click here to watch a video of the May ceremony announcing the prize winners and explaining their accomplishments.

Noozhawk intern Mollie Helmuth can be reached at [email protected]

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