The Big (and Small) Breakthroughs that Won the 2014 Kavli Prizes

Nine researchers were honored in the latest round of Kavli Prizes, the first since the passing of founder Fred Kavli in November. Three teams of scientists were awarded $1 million each for seminal advances in their fields, including one team that made huge headlines this year. 

The Kavli Prizes are awards in three fields of science—astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience—that Norwegian-born philanthropist Fred Kavli launched with the intention of rivaling the Nobels. 

It’s not surprising who won the astrophysics prize, since the team was all over the news back in March after empirical detection strongly backed their theory of the early stages of the origins of our universe. Alan H. Guth of MIT, Andrei D. Linde of Stanford and Alexei A. Starobinsky of the Landau Institute for Theoretical Physics share the award as founders of the theory that in the extremely early moments of the Big Bang, the universe expanded at faster-than-light speeds.

(If you didn’t see it when it went viral in March, definitely watch this video of Andrei Linde being surprised with news of the discovery.)

Kavli has another connection to the inflationary theory, as the team that made the discovery of the evidentiary ripples included principal investigator Chao-Lin Kuo and other researchers affiliated with the Kavli Institute for Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at Stanford. [Read IP’s coverage of the Funders Who Helped Discover the Origins of the Universe.]

In nanoscience, three investigators won for their transformative work in nano-optics, the viewing of objects about 100 times smaller than the diameter of human hair. Thomas W. Ebbesen of Université Louis Pasteur, Université de Strasbourg, France; Stefan W. Hell of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry, Germany; and Sir John B. Pendry of the Imperial College London, UK, share the prize for challenging our common beliefs about the limitations of such imaging.

And in neuroscience, three more researchers will share the Kavli Prize for their contributions in understanding memory and cognition. Brenda Milner of the Montreal Neurological Institute at McGill University in Quebec, John O’Keefe of University College London, and Marcus E. Raichle of Washington University in St. Louis won the award in recognition of their work on the specialized systems in the brain that produce these functions, which has implications for how we understand identity and the mechanics of memory loss and dementia. 

The awards go out every other year, and are decided by three prize committees made up of top researchers in the disciplines. They're administered by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, the Kavli Foundation and the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research. 

All of these researchers were chosen for their work based on the fact that the award will have a strong influence on all future work in their fields, matching the goals of The Kavli Foundation. Based in Oxnard, California, the funder is dedicated to advancing science for the benefit of humanity, as well as increasing public understanding and support for science. 

Even aside from the prizes, Kavli is one of the most influential science funders in the world. We wrote about the legacy Fred Kavli left behind when he passed away last year, most notably with the establishment of ongoing funding mechanisms for research, through the 17 Kavli Institutes that exist so far. Read more about the foundation below.

The Kavli Foundation: Grants for Science Research

Miyoung Chun, The Kavli Foundation