2012 Kavli Prize Press Release

Seven Scientific Pioneers Receive the 2012 Kavli Prizes


May 31, 2012

SEVEN PIONEERING SCIENTISTS have been named this year’s recipients of the Kavli Prizes – prizes that recognize scientists for their seminal advances in astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience, and include a cash award of one million dollars in each field. This year’s laureates were selected for making fundamental contributions to our understanding of the outer solar system, the differences in material properties at nano- and larger scales, and how the brain receives and responds to sensations such as sight, sound and touch.

The Kavli Prize in Astrophysics is shared between David C. Jewitt, University of California, USA, Jane X. Luu, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Lincoln Laboratory, USA, and Michael E. Brown, California Institute of Technology, USA. They received the prize “for discovering and characterizing the Kuiper Belt and its largest members, work that led to a major advance in the understanding of the history of our planetary system.”

The Kavli Prize in Nanoscience is given to Mildred S. Dresselhaus, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA, “for her pioneering contributions to the study of phonons, electron-phonon interactions, and thermal transport in nanostructures.”

The Kavli Prize in Neuroscience is shared between Cornelia Isabella Bargmann, Rockefeller University, USA, Winfried Denk, Max Planck Institute for Medical Research, Germany, and Ann M. Graybiel, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, USA. They received the prize “for elucidating basic neuronal mechanisms underlying perception and decision.”

The Kavli Prizes are a partnership between The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, The Kavli Foundation (USA) and The Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research. Today’s announcement was made by Nils Christian Stenseth, President of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, and transmitted live at the opening event of the World Science Festival in New York.

His Majesty King Harald will present the Kavli Prizes to the laureates at an award ceremony in Oslo, Norway on September 4.

The Kavli Prize in Astrophysics

David JewittJane LuuMichael Brown

David Jewitt of the University of California, Los Angeles, USA, and Jane Luu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), in Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA, spent six years making observations of the outer solar system. Then in 1992 they spotted the first known object in the Kuiper Belt, the region beyond Neptune's orbit which is distant from the Sun by between 30 and 50 times the Earth-Sun distance. Since then they and others have identified more than 1,000 Kuiper Belt objects. Astronomers are particularly interested in these KBO’s because their composition may be close to the primordial material that coalesced around the Sun during the formation of the solar system.

Jewitt and Luu share the 2012 Kavli prize for astrophysics with Michael Brown, of the California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena, California, who followed in their footsteps and searched the Kuiper Belt for planet-sized bodies. In 2005 he found Eris, an object about the same size as Pluto but with 27% more mass. As a result astronomers had to rethink what it is to be a "planet". The subsequent relegation of Pluto to "dwarf planet" status became worldwide news.

The Kavli Prize in Nanoscience

Mildred Dresselhaus

The nanoscience prize goes to Mildred S. Dresselhaus, of MIT. Over more than five decades, Dresselhaus has made multiple advances in helping to explain why the properties of materials structured at the nanoscale can vary so much from those of the same materials at larger dimensions.

Her early work on compounds made up of different chemical species sandwiched between graphite layers, known as graphite intercalation compounds, and carbon fibres, laid the groundwork for later discoveries concerning the famous C60 buckyball, carbon nanotubes and graphene. Dresselhaus receives the prize for her research into uniform oscillations of elastic arrangements of atoms or molecules called phonons, phonon-electron interactions and heat conductivity in nanostructures.

The Kavli Prize in Neuroscience

Cornelia BargmannWinfried DenkAnn Graybiel

Three scientists, who have studied how sensory signals pass from points of sensation such as the eye, foot or nose to the brain, and how responses occur, share the neuroscience prize. Cornelia Bargmann, of the Rockefeller University in New York, used nematode worms (Caenorhabditis elegans) to provide insights into the molecular controls for animal behaviour. Important advances have included the discovery of the first evidence that the odour response is governed by neurons, of the intracellular signalling pathways between odorant receptors and sensory neurons, and of specific neurons, receptors and neurotransmitters involved in behaviour adaption following experience.

Two techniques developed by Winfried Denk, of the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg, Germany, have allowed him to answer major questions about how information is transmitted from the eye to the brain. In 1990 he announced his invention of two-photon laser scanning fluorescence microscopy, which allows imaging of living tissue at greater depths and with less unwanted background fluorescence. He went on to develop serial block-face electron microscopy, whereby detailed 3D imagery of minute structures within tissue are generated by the repeated removal of thin slices and scanning of the remaining cut surface of samples.

Ann M. Graybiel, of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research, at MIT, has identified and traced neural loops going from the outer layer of the brain to a region called the striatum and back again, and revealed that these form the basis for linking sensory cues to actions involved in habitual behaviours. She has provided a deeper understanding of the ability to make or break habits, and of what goes wrong in movement and repetitive behaviour disorders.