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2010 Kavli Prizes awarded

Telescopes, brain chemicals and control over atoms earn million-dollar honors

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4:23pm, June 3, 2010
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Powerful telescopes, neuron chatter molecules, DNA devices and a method for controlling single atoms have earned eight scientists recognition with the 2010 Kavli Prizes. The awards, announced June 3 in Oslo, Norway, honor groundbreaking research in astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience, the “fields of the future,” says Fred Kavli, the awards’ namesake.

In a ceremony in Oslo in September, each winner will be presented with a gold medal, a scroll and a share of the $1 million award for each category.

This year’s winners for astrophysics are Jerry Nelson of the University of California, Santa Cruz, Ray Wilson, formerly of Imperial College London and the European Southern Observatory in Germany, and Roger Angel of the University of Arizona in Tucson. Winners in nanoscience are Donald Eigler of IBM’s Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif., and Nadrian Seeman of New York University. Richard Scheller of the biotech company Genentech in San Francisco, Thomas Südhof of Stanford University School of Medicine and James Rothman of Yale University are the winners in neuroscience.

Entrepreneur, philanthropist and physicist Fred Kavli’s organization, the Kavli Foundation, administers the prizes — selected by committees of leading international scientists in the three categories — in collaboration with the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters and the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research. The awards, given out every other year, are designed to honor creative scientists, promote public understanding of science and encourage scientific cooperation between countries, according to the Kavli Foundation.

This year’s Kavli laureates for astrophysics received the award for contributions to making telescopes bigger and better. To make exciting new discoveries, “we really are likely to have to look beyond our own solar system, and to do that, we need telescopes with good resolution,” said astrophysicist Kip Thorne of Caltech. Thorne was on a panel that discussed the winners at the World Science Festival in New York City on June 3, where the Oslo results were broadcast live.

The work of Nelson, Wilson and Angel, Thorne said, “enables us to look out to greater and greater distances,” a feat which may lead to fundamental discoveries about the birth of galaxies, the origin of the universe and even whether humans are alone in the cosmos.

At the other end of the size spectrum, the Kavli award winners in nanotechnology were recognized for techniques that precisely position single atoms and tiny pieces of DNA. In 1989, Eigler was the first person to pick up a single atom and move it to another location. Such methods for controlling individual atoms “provide credibility and inspiration to what was at the time the emerging field of nanoscience,” said chairman of the Kavli Nanoscience Prize Committee Arne Skjeltorp of the University of Oslo.

Seeman received the prize for his work using DNA not as an information carrier, but as a structural building block. He figured out how to build tiny structures with DNA in origami-like fashion. His DNA-based devices may one day be used to carry cargo, such as drugs, to desired locales in the body.

The recipients of this year’s neuroscience prize won for discoveries about how neurons in the brain release chemical messages. Scheller, Südhof and Rothman independently identified some of the key molecules that regulate neurons’ cross talk in the brain, the process at the heart of thoughts, feelings, memory and movement.

In addition to boosting the understanding of how neurons communicate, the laureates’ work may also help researchers design drugs that may better treat psychiatric disorders, said neuroscientist Antonio Damasio of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.

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