Nine scientists named Kavli Prize winners

Honouring groundbreaking achievements in astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience.

The Kavli Foundation
Nine scientists have been named as winners of the prestigious Kavli Prize, honoured for their cutting edge research in astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience.

The prizes, worth $1 million each, are awarded by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, the Kavli Foundation, and the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research.

The three winners in astrophysics this year were Ronald Drever, Kip Thorne, and Rainer Weiss for their detection of gravitational waves.

“This detection has, in a single stroke and for the first time, validated Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity for very strong fields, established the nature of gravitational waves, demonstrated the existence of black holes with masses 30 times that of our sun, and opened a new window on the universe,” the citation for the prize read.

Gerd Binnig, Christoph Gerber, and Calvin Quate received the nanoscience prize for inventing atomic force microscopy. This groundbreaking imaging is so sharp it can display a single atom.

In the neuroscience category, Eve Marder, Michael Merzenich, and Carla Shatz for their modeling of brain functions as the brain changes throughout life.

The Kavli Prizes were established in 2005 and awarded for the first time in Oslo, 9 September 2008. The Kavli Foundation was established in December 2000 by its founder Fred Kavli, a Norwegian business leader and philanthropist.

Below are the full citations from the Kavli Prize committee in full.


The Kavli Foundation

On 14 September 2015 the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) registered a pulse of gravitational radiation emitted by the inspiralling and coalescence of two black holes. This detection has, in a single stroke and for the first time, validated Einstein’s theory of general relativity for very strong fields, established the nature of gravitational waves, demonstrated the existence of black holes with masses 30 times that of our sun, and opened a new window on the universe.

Gravitational radiation was predicted 100 years ago by Albert Einstein, shortly after he developed the theory of gravity known as general relativity. Gravitational waves consist of almost unimaginably tiny ripples in the very fabric of four-dimensional space-time that emanate from rapidly moving masses and propagate at the speed of light, in analogy to ripples spreading on the surface of a placid pond. Emission of gravitational radiation was inferred from the measured orbital decay of a single binary pulsar some 30 years ago. But the direct measurement of the tiny space-time ripples required the sustained vision and experimental ingenuity of Drever, Thorne and Weiss, spanning most of the last 50 years, as individual scientists and later as intellectual leaders of a team of hundreds of scientists and engineers.

When a gravitational wave passes through Earth it distorts space, alternately stretching it in one direction and compressing it at right angles. LIGO consists of two perpendicular arms, each 4 km long, which respond to this distortion, changing in length by a tiny fraction of the diameter of a proton. Measuring such displacements, billions of times smaller than vibrations produced naturally in the environment, is the astonishing technical feat that LIGO has accomplished. To distinguish the passage of a gravitational wave from local disturbances, LIGO deploys two identical interferometers, one in Washington State and the other in Louisiana. At the moment the gravitational wave hit the Earth, the two instruments registered identical signals, separated only by the time required for the wave to traverse the distance between them.

The tiny effect that gravitational waves have on space led many scientists to believe they would be undetectable. A breakthrough was achieved in 1972, when Weiss worked out the basic interferometer concept that eventually became LIGO. Weiss provided technical leadership and devoted his extraordinary experimental acumen over the next decades, contributing to every aspect of the final apparatus.

Thorne had, since the 1960s, been evaluating how extreme events in the universe, such as colliding black holes and neutron stars, would generate gravitational radiation. In 1975 Thorne and Weiss began discussions of how to build Weiss’ interferometer. Thorne provided scientific leadership and the vision that led to the establishment of LIGO. He also initiated a successful programme of numerical computations of the expected waveforms necessary to extract astrophysical parameters from the detected signals.

Drever joined Thorne and Weiss in 1979 as a third co-founder of the project. Drever applied his extraordinary experimental genius to perfecting the design and operation of interferometers. He devised methods for increasing the efficiency and power of the optical systems at the heart of LIGO. His insights led to major improvements in LIGO’s capability that were essential in achieving the required sensitivity.

The detection of gravitational waves is an achievement for which hundreds of scientists, engineers and technicians around the world share credit. Drever, Thorne and Weiss stand out: their ingenuity, inspiration, intellectual leadership and tenacity were the driving force behind this epic discovery.


The Kavli Foundation

Sculpting and analysing nanoscale structures are at the core of nanoscience. An ultimate dream had been to position atoms on any surface, one by one, to enable the design and creation of revolutionary new structures. Imaging atomic structures in a wide range of material systems was another visionary concept. The invention of atomic force microscopy has turned these dreams into reality. Atomic force microscopy is now widely used in the fields of physics, chemistry, biology, and materials science.

In atomic force microscopy, a nanoscale tip scans across a sample surface at atomically close range. At the same time, the tiny forces between the sample and the tip are detected. These forces reveal many properties of the sample, such as the arrangement of its individual atoms, now with subatomic resolution. Electric and magnetic interactions, friction, and chemical bonding can induce these forces. The technique is applicable over a wide temperature range and in magnetic fields. Unlike scanning tunnelling microscopy, atomic force microscopy can also be applied to insulating materials.

Nanosculpting refers to adding, arranging, and removing atoms to produce desired phenomena and functions. The tip provides a versatile tool for accomplishing such control. Being able to manipulate conductors and insulators at the nanoscale has applications comparable to those of nanoscale 3D printing. Nanostructures created by force microscopy-based techniques include devices in nanoelectronics, nanophotonics, and nanomagnetism.

The advantages of atomic force microscopy include experimenting in liquids such as water, which opens the possibility of exploring biological systems. A single molecule, such as a DNA or a protein molecule, can be suspended between the tip and surface. Lifting the tip stretches and unfolds the molecule. The measured restoring force reveals the molecule’s elastic properties and functionality. Biochemical sensors are utilizing the in-situ detection of chemical reactions by temperature-sensitive cantilevers, opening new doors for medical applications. In life sciences, explorations of molecular processes with high resolution advance drug design.

The invention of atomic force microscopy has spawned a wide variety of measurement and manipulation techniques invaluable for many purposes. These range from magnetic force and chemical force microscopy to magnetic resonance spectroscopy, and scanning capacitance microscopy. Another example is friction force microscopy that deepens our understanding of lubrication at the atomic level.

Atomic force microscopy is a powerful and versatile scientific technique that continues to advance nanoscience for the benefit of society.


The Kavli Foundation

How does the brain change during learning and development, while remaining structurally stable and producing reliable behaviour? This fundamental question has been addressed by the three 2016 Kavli Prize laureates in Neuroscience. Their discoveries showed how neuronal activity, generated either by experience or by intrinsic brain function, actively sculpts structural and functional connections between nerve cells. At the same time, essential stability is provided by self-regulating mechanisms that drive nerve cells to produce consistent patterns of activity.

Michael Merzenich demonstrated that sensory circuits in the cerebral cortex can be reorganized by experience in adulthood. Different parts of the body are represented in a continuous map in the somatosensory cortex. After demonstrating reorganization of this map after injury, Merzenich showed that simply expanding or limiting the use of different fingers leads to a corresponding change in the representation of the hand in the brain. Similarly, he showed that the auditory cortex can change its map of sound frequencies after individuals are trained to detect fine differences in pitch. This discovery helps explain how humans can recover their perception of speech with electronic cochlear implants, which generate signals much simpler than normal auditory inputs. Merzenich showed that neuromodulators as well as cognitive factors including attention determine whether adult plasticity takes place. This work is being extended in humans to maximize learning and recovery from brain injury and disease.

Carla Shatz showed how patterns of activity in the developing brain instruct and refine the arrangement of synapses between neurons. She demonstrated that the formation of appropriate connections between the eye and the brain of mammals depends on neuronal activity before birth. She discovered that spontaneous waves of activity sweep across the retina early in development, and showed that these organized activity patterns select the final set of connections from a coarse, genetically-determined map. Her demonstration that “neurons that fire together, wire together” links the mechanisms of brain wiring during development to those underlying adult learning and memory.

Eve Marder used the simple circuits of crustaceans to elucidate the dynamic interplay between flexibility and stability in the nervous system. She showed that numerous neuromodulators reconfigure the output of adult neural circuits without altering their underlying anatomy. At the same time, she found that circuits can generate similar neuronal and network outputs from many different configurations of intrinsic neuronal excitability and synaptic strength. This apparent paradox was solved by her recognition that neurons have a self-regulating homeostatic programme that drives them to a stable target activity level. With the other two Kavli Prize laureates, Marder defined the mechanisms by which brains remain stable while allowing for change during development and learning.

Cosmos reporter is a contributor to Cosmos Magazine
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