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Million-dollar mysteries

The next time someone tells you that scientists never get the big bucks, point that person toward the Web site for the $1 million Shaw Prize. Today's prize-winners include a trio of astronomers who are being honored for discovering something  - even though they don't know what the heck it is.

Those three researchers - Saul Perlmutter of the Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory at the University of California at Berkeley, Adam Riess of Johns Hopkins University and the Space Telescope Science Institute, and Brian Schmidt of the Australian National University's Mount Stromlo Observatory - will share the million-dollar astronomy prize for their roles in detecting the influence of dark energy back in 1998.

Dark energy is a mysterious factor that appears to contribute to a "cosmic speed-up" in the expansion of the universe - perhaps due to an as-yet-unknown property of our space-time continuum. Whatever it is, it accounts for 70 percent of the universe's content.

"We still don't understand it very well," Riess said in a Johns Hopkins news release.

He and other scientists are working with NASA and the Energy Department to explore the possibility of a Joint Dark Energy Mission (PDF file), equipped with instruments that could help unravel what the National Academy of Sciences has called "the deepest mystery in physics."

Xiaodong Wang, a biochemist at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, was awarded the million-dollar prize in life science and medicine. The Hong Kong-based Shaw Prize Foundation said he was being honored "for his discovery of the biochemical basis of programmed cell death, a vital process that balances cell birth and defends against cancer."

David Mumford of Brown University and Wu Wentsun of the Chinese Academy of Sciences will share the million dollars in the math category. Mumford is being honored "for his contributions to mathematics, and to the new interdisciplinary fields of pattern theory and vision research," while Wu is being recognized "for his contributions to the new interdisciplinary field of mathematics mechanization."

This is the third year for the Shaw Prize program, which some have called "the Nobel Prize of the East." The three prizes were established by Run Run Shaw, a philanthropist and longtime leader in the Hong Kong film and TV industry. This year's presentation ceremony is scheduled Sept. 12. 

Update for noon ET June 22: I sent an e-mail to Adam Riess on Wednesday evening, congratulating him on the prize and asking what he intended to do with his share of the money. Here's what he wrote back early today:

"Good question. It's a bit like dark energy: I haven't quite comprehended it yet, and I don't know what I will do with it."