June 1, 2012 at 8:30 PM ET
Revelations about the solar system's icy frontier, carbon-based nanostructures and the neurological basis of perception and decision have brought global recognition to seven researchers who are sharing in this year's three $1 million Kavli Prizes.
The prizes have been awarded every other year since 2008 for pioneering work in three areas of research: astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience. The program is a partnership involving the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, the Kavli Foundation and the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research.
The Norwegian academy receives nominations from their colleagues in other countries and forwards them on to prize committees who recommend the winners. Much of the money for the awards is put up by the foundation, created by Norwegian-born industrialist/philanthropist Fred Kavli.
Here are the winners of this year's prizes, announced on Thursday:
Planetary scientists David Jewitt, Jane Luu and Mike Brown share the $1 million astrophysics 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 Kuiper Belt is an icy ring of material on the outskirts of the solar system, between 30 and 50 AU. (One AU, or astronomical unit, equals the distance from Earth to the sun.) UCLA's Jewitt and MIT's Luu found the first Kuiper Belt object beyond Pluto in 1992. Caltech's Brown led a team that found numerous large Kuiper Belt objects, including one that's more massive than Pluto. Brown's discovery of the world now known as Eris led to Pluto's reclassification as a dwarf planet in 2006, but I don't hold that against him.
Earlier in the week, Jewitt and Luu were awarded the $1 million Shaw Prize in Astronomy for their study of trans-Neptunian bodies. Jewitt told Physics World it was "very flattering" to receive such rich honors from two independent prize committees almost simultaneously.
MIT physicist Mildred Dresselhaus will receive the nanoscience prize "for her pioneering contributions to the study of phonons, electron-phonon interactions, and thermal transport in nanostructures." Over the course of five decades, Dresselhaus has come up with a steady stream of insights revealing how the properties of materials at the nanometer scale can be radically different from their properties at larger scales. Her early work on carbon fibers and materials known as graphite intercalation compounds laid the foundation for later discoveries relating to buckyballs, carbon nanotubes and graphene. (Graphene was the focus of a Nobel Prize awarded in 2010.)
Cornelia Bargmann, Winfried Denk and Ann Graybiel share the neuroscience prize "for elucidating basic neuronal mechanisms underlying perception and decision." Rockefeller University's Bargmann used nematode worms to study the molecular controls for animal behavior, including the role of odorant receptors, sensory neurons and the neurotransmitters involved in behavioral adaptation following experience. Denk, a resercher at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research, developed two techniques for studing how information is transmitted from the eye to the brain. MIT's Graybiel traced neural loops connecting the outer brain with an inner region known as the striatum. Such loops form the basis for linking sensory cues to actions involved in habitual behaviors.
Norway's King Harald V will present the prizes to the laureates during a Sept. 4 ceremony in Oslo.
Update for 10 p.m. ET June 2: The prize announcement was made during a webcast from the Norwegian Academy of Letters and Science in Oslo that was beamed to the World Science Festival in New York. One of the laureates, Cornelia Bargmann, was in attendance for the announcement. Check out the archived video of the event, and if you're in New York this weekend, check out the festivities at the science festival. It's also worth noting that on the other side of the country, a month-long science fest is just starting up in Seattle.
More about scientific prizes:
Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.