Pi­o­neer­ing sci­en­tists in grav­i­ta­tional wave dis­cov­ery among Kavli Prize win­ners

Business Mirror - - SCIENCE MONDAY - Los Angeles Times/ TNS

NINE sci­en­tists have won the 2016 Kavli Prize for their ground­break­ing work on grav­i­ta­tional waves, brain plas­tic­ity and atomic force mi­croscopy.

The Kavli Prize, whose lau­re­ates are awarded ev­ery two years in Nor­way, rec­og­nizes re­searchers who have made cru­cial con­tri­bu­tions to the fields of as­tro­physics, nanoscience and neu­ro­science. In each of the three cat­e­gories, win­ners share a $1-mil­lion cash prize.

Mas­sachusetts In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy’s ( MIT) Rainer Weiss and Cal­i­for­nia In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy’s Kip Thorne and Ron­ald Dr­ever took home the as­tro­physics prize for their pi­o­neer­ing work on the Laser In­ter­fer­om­e­ter Grav­i­ta­tional-Wave Ob­ser­va­tory, or Ligo. Af­ter a decades­long search, Ligo last Septem­ber fi­nally de­tected the first di­rect ev­i­dence of th­ese elu­sive rip­ples in the fab­ric of the cos­mos.

“This dis­cov­ery has, in a sin­gle stroke and for the first time, val­i­dated Ein­stein’s the­ory of gen­eral rel­a­tively for very strong fields,” said Mats Carls­son of the In­sti­tute of The­o­ret­i­cal As­tro­physics in Nor­way, chair­man of the as­tro­physics award com­mit­tee, in an­nounc­ing the prize on Thurs­day. “It has 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.”

Thorne and Weiss, who were watch­ing the award cer­e­mony via video feed at the World Science Festival in New York City, em­braced over a din­ing ta­ble and drew a stand­ing ova­tion from the gath­ered sci­en­tists. The win came just days af­ter the trio picked up the Shaw Prize in As­tron­omy for their work on Ligo.

Thanks to Ligo, “you can re­ally look out into the uni­verse with a tool you’ve never had be­fore,” MIT physi­cist Ner­gis Maval­vala told the au­di­ence in New York dur­ing a panel dis­cus­sion fol­low­ing the an­nounce­ment. Maval­vala told the au­di­ence that she didn’t even know what grav­i­ta­tional waves were in 1991 when she met Weiss (who went on to be­come her doc­toral ad­viser).

“He told me what he was try­ing to do, and I thought it was to­tally in­sane,” Maval­vala said. (In spite of her ap­par­ent skep­ti­cism, the 2010 MacArthur “ge­nius” grant re­cip­i­ent ended up work­ing on Ligo, too.)

Weiss ini­tially came up with the con­cept for the de­tec­tor; Thorne, who met Weiss when they shared a ho­tel room, was a the­o­rist by train­ing and re­cruited Dr­ever from Scot­land, who was known as a tal­ented ex­per­i­men­tal­ist. “The first time we ac­tu­ally un­der­stood that the sig­nals are out there and mea­sur­able came re­ally from the work of Kip— the mea­sur­able part,” Maval­vala said.

Gerd Bin­nig, for­merly of the IBM Zurich Re­search Lab­o­ra­tory, Christoph Ger­ber of the Univer­sity of Basel and Calvin Quate of Stan­ford Univer­sity, earned the nanoscience award for de­vel­op­ing the atomic force mi­cro­scope, an in­stru­ment that al­lows re­searchers to ex­am­ine a sur­face prac­ti­cally atom by atom.

“Based on this tech­nique, sculpt­ing and an­a­lyz­ing nanoscale struc­tures is now widely used in the fields of physics, chem­istry, bi­ol­ogy and ma­te­ri­als science,” said Arne Brataas of the Nor­we­gian Univer­sity of Science and Tech­nol­ogy, chair for the nanoscience award.

Michal Lip­son, an ex­pert in sil­i­con pho­ton­ics at Columbia Univer­sity who also won a MacArthur grant in 2010, em­pha­sized the im­por­tance of the Kavli win­ners’ con­tri­bu­tion to a vast ar­ray of sci­en­tific dis­ci­plines.

“There is not a sin­gle cen­ter with­out this AFM, atomic force mi­cro­scope,” she said at the panel dis­cus­sion. “This is a must, it is a tool that all of us use all of the time. So it has com­pletely en­abled nan­otech­nol­ogy to be what it is to­day.”

Eve Marder of Bran­deis Univer­sity, Michael Merzenich of the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, San Francisco and Stan­ford’s Carla Shatz won the neu­ro­science prize for their in­di­vid­ual lines of work on the ways that ex­pe­ri­ence and neu­ral ac­tiv­ity can re­shape brain func­tion.

Our brains are con­stantly re­spond­ing and adapt­ing to ex­pe­ri­ence— mak­ing them in­cred­i­bly plas­tic—and yet, our per­son­al­i­ties and be­hav­iors some­how man­age to re­main largely sta­ble, said Ole Pet­ter Ot­tersen of the Univer­sity of Oslo, the neu­ro­science chair­man.

“It is the elu­ci­da­tion of this del­i­cate bal­ance be­tween plas­tic­ity and sta­bil­ity that we cel­e­brate,” he said of the lau­re­ates’ work.

For a long time, re­searchers thought that ba­bies’ and chil­dren’s brains were ca­pa­ble of in­cred­i­ble plas­tic­ity and growth, but that adults’ brains had a largely fixed ar­chi­tec­ture. The three sci­en­tists showed that the adult brain can be far more flex­i­ble and adapt­able than pre­vi­ously thought—which opens the door to new treat­ments for all kinds of neu­ro­log­i­cal con­di­tions.

“The pic­ture of how we ex­pe­ri­ence the world around us has been ut­terly re­drawn,” Ot­tersen added.

The Kavli Prize is a joint ef­fort by the Nor­we­gian Academy of Science and Let­ters, the US- based Kavli Foun­da­tion and the Nor­we­gian Min­istry of Ed­u­ca­tion and Re­search.

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