The Kavli Prizes
Sep27

The Kavli Prizes

Alfred Nobel never got to enjoy the pomp and ceremony associated with the awarding of the prizes that bear his name. Fred Kavli has no intention of making the same mistake. Kavli was a beaming, congenial presence throughout the week in early September when the 2010 Kavli Prizes were awarded in Oslo, Norway. There’s no escaping comparisons between the Nobel Prizes and the Kavli Prizes. First, they are major awards—a bit over $1 million for each Nobel and right at $1 million for each Kavli. Six Nobels are awarded each year; three focus on science. The three Kavli Prizes also honor achievement in the sciences. Both the Nobel and Kavli Prizes are awarded in Scandinavian countries. However, just as it is a mistake for anyone unfamiliar with the two countries to lump Norway and Sweden together as two Scandinavian nations that share a big peninsula in northern Europe, it would be a mistake to think of the Kavli Prizes as modern-day Nobel wannabes. First, the prizes themselves: The terms for Nobel Prizes stipulate that the prizes be for a specific achievement or discovery. That is, they are not supposed to be lifetime achievement awards, although we all know that they sometimes are. As a result, the Nobel committees sometimes strain to make the announcements of the prizes sound like they conform to Nobel’s intentions. There is no such limitation imposed on the Kavli Prizes. As a result, the 2010 prizes celebrate a striking breadth of scientific accomplishment. The prize in neuroscience went to Richard H. Scheller of Genentech, Thomas C. Südhof of Stanford University, and James E. Rothman of Yale University “for discovering the molecular basis of neurotransmitter release.” The prize in nanoscience went to Donald M. Eigler of IBM and Nadrian C. Seeman of New York University “for their development of unprecedented methods to control matter on the nanoscale,” although the methods are completely unrelated to one another. The prize in astrophysics is particularly revealing, I think. Kavli trained as a physicist in Norway but made his fortune by founding a company that became one of the world’s largest suppliers of sensors for aeronautic, automotive, and industrial applications. He’s an engineer at heart. The 2010 Kavli Prize in Astrophysics was awarded, not for some deep insight into the structure of the universe, but to three individuals who were instrumental in designing the world’s largest telescopes. Jerry E. Nelson of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and the Lick Observatory; Raymond N. Wilson of the European Southern Observatory; and Roger Angel of the University of Arizona all started out as physicists who became enamored with telescopes. They developed ingenious...

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Kavli Prize Science Forum
Sep07

Kavli Prize Science Forum

Oslo, Norway: The second round of Kavli Prizes in Science are being awarded this week, and I’m in Oslo attending the ceremonies. Due to a missed connection on my way to Oslo, I was unable to attend Monday’s Kavli Prize symposia in astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience, the three disciplines in which the Kavli Prizes are awarded. Happily, I did arrive just in time to attend a new event associated with this year’s Kavli Prizes, the Kavli Prize Science Forum 2010 on “The Role of International Cooperation in Science.” The event brought together two distinguished keynote speakers—U.S. Presidential Science Advisor John P. Holdren and Ernst-Ludwig Winnacker, Secretary General of the Human Frontier Science Program and the first Secretary General of the European Research Council—and a panel of distinguished speakers from around the world. As much as some people in the U.S. would just love to see the topic disappear, global climate change was much on the minds of the scientists gathered at the Kavli forum. Setting the tone for the forum was a nonscientist, Norwegian Minister of Foreign Affairs Jonas Gahr Støre, who opened the session. “One of the most complex issues demanding international cooperation in science is climate change,” Støre said. Climate change induced by human activities “is beyond doubt,” he observed. While decisions about addressing climate change are being made at the nation state level, “it is obvious that international collaboration in science and science policy must play a role. We need much better links between the science and the policy worlds,” Støre said. One important issue in climate change policy that Støre pointed to was the need to distinguish between probability and certainty. “There is always uncertainty in science,” he noted. “I believe that scientists should speak out more loudly, shortly, and forcefully” on topics such as climate change without as much equivocating as is often true of scientific discourse. “The merchants of doubt use uncertainty to play down the severity of the problems facing us,” Støre said. Støre went on to note that Norway has significant strategic interests in the “high North and Arctic,” where most of the changes associated with climate change are now taking place. Norway has established important cooperative scientific relationships with Russia in studying climate change and managing common Arctic resources, he observed. The forum was moderated by Charles Vest, president emeritus of MIT and president of the National Academy of Engineering, who pointed out that “science is conducted within the context of science policy and engineering policy.” The central problem faced by science policy makers, Vest noted, is that, “at the end of the day, government has to deliver something of...

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