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Seven Scientists Win Kavli Prizes June 4, 2012

Posted by The Raise Project in Award Winners, Featured Prize, Women in Science.
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Seven scientists whose work spanned the outer reaches of the solar system and penetrated the inner workings of brain circuits and nanotubes were named winners of the 2012 Kavli Prizes on Thursday. The $1 million awards, sponsored by the physicist, businessman and philanthropist Fred Kavli, are given every two years by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters for work in the fields of astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience, “the biggest, the smallest and the most complex,” in the words of Mr. Kavli.

Mildred S. Dresselhaus, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, won the nanoscience prize for her research on carbon nanotubes, the chicken-wire wonder cylinders of pure carbon, and how they conduct heat and electricity. She is known around M.I.T. as “the queen of carbon,” according to her colleague Angela Belcher, who noted that she had been working on carbon fibers since the 1960s and had been able to predict the properties of nanotubes, which can be formed by rolling or twisting a sheet of carbon atoms only one atom wide, before they had been discovered in the lab.

Cornelia Isabella Bargmann of Rockefeller University, Winfried Denk of the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Heidelberg, Germany, and Ann M. Graybiel of M.I.T. will split the neuroscience prize for work aimed at elucidating how the brain processes information from the environment. Dr. Bargmann has unraveled some of the logic of the neural circuits of C. elegans, a worm with only 300 nerve cells that is used in genetic research. Dr. Denk developed microscopy techniques that allowed researchers to make three-dimensional maps of the internal wiring in brain tissues.

Dr. Graybiel is an expert in the basal ganglia, structures in the forebrain that control movement and have been implicated in diseases like Parkinson’s and addiction. Her work, the academy said, shows how patterns of neural activity change and reorganize themselves as animals develop new skills or habits, both good and bad.

At a ceremony at New York University on Thursday morning, Dr. Bargmann was asked why we should study such a primitive worm. “The worms are our partners and collaborators,” she answered, adding that their systems are simple enough that “you can really try to understand the whole system at once.” Her research had shown, she said, that the brain has innate pathways that link certain signals to certain behaviors. For example, she said, “children are born knowing they like sweet things and reject bitter ones.”

The winners of the astrophysics prize will also split $1 million for exploring a hitherto unknown facet of the architecture and history of the solar system: a cloudy disk of ice and rock known as the Kuiper Belt. It looms outside the orbit of Neptune and contains at least 70,000 objects left over from the formation of the planets. David C. Jewitt of the University of California, Los Angeles, and Jane X. Luu of M.I.T.’s Lincoln Laboratory discovered the Kuiper Belt in the form of a slow-moving (meaning it was very far away) object in 1992.

The third winner of the astrophysics prize, Michael E. Brown of the California Institute of Technology, has discovered a series of massive bodies in the Kuiper Belt, including, in 2005, Eris, which is more massive than Pluto. His work led to a worldwide debate on the definition of planethood, which resulted in Pluto’s being dumped from the roster of planets and designated, like Eris and others, a dwarf planet.

The awards were announced by Nils Christian Stenseth, president of the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, as part of a World Science Festival event. John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and President Obama’s science adviser, spoke about the administration’s efforts to cultivate a climate of innovation, citing the trip of the private Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station.



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