Seven scientists were recognized Thursday as pioneers and heroes for years and sometimes decades of work exploring everything from the edges of the solar system to the brain of a small worm.
The winners of the 2012 Kavli Prizes shared three $1 million prizes for advances in astrophysics, neuroscience and nanoscience.
Local philanthropist and businessman Fred Kavli created the prize program several years ago. It is a partnership between the Oxnard-based Kavli Foundation, the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research and the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters.
"What's impressive about looking at the prize winners today is just the role model that they do set for kids. These people are heroes in science," said Angela Belcher, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who spoke on a panel during Thursday's event in New York. "I think it's a huge motivator for future generations."
The announcements were made in Oslo, Norway, and broadcast live at the World Science Festival in New York. First handed out in 2008, the prizes for the first time went to several women scientists this year. In fact, four of the seven winners were women.
Historically, more men than women have worked in science, said Bob Conn, president of the Kavli Foundation. "But in the last 40 years, there has been a real transformation, and it's wonderful to now have much more balance between men and women who go into science," he said. "That shows up now and will show up over the next 20, 30, 40 years in who is winning these prizes."
This year, David Jewitt from UCLA, Jane Luu from MIT and Michael Brown from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena shared the prize for astrophysics. They were credited with creating a new way of thinking about our solar system.
Jewitt and Luu spent six years studying the outer solar system when, in 1992, they spotted the first known object in the Kuiper Belt, a region beyond Neptune's orbit, Kavli officials said. More than 1,000 of the icy objects have since been identified.
Brown followed by searching the belt for planet-sized objects, according to prize officials. In 2005, he found Eris, an object about the same size as Pluto, leading astronomers to rethink what defines a planet and reclassify Pluto as a dwarf planet.
In the field of nanoscience, Mildred Dresselhaus, also from MIT, pioneered new understanding of how energy moves on the smallest of scales.
In neuroscience, Cornelia Isabella Bargmann from Rockefeller University in New York, Winfried Denk from the Max Planck Institute for Medical Research in Germany and Ann Graybiel from MIT advanced what is known of how the brain receives and responds to sensations.
"One of the virtues for this sort of prize is that it actually provides a recognition of the field as a whole and enthusiasm for young people to get a sense that people are paying attention to what they're doing," said Thomas Jessell, co-director of the Kavli Institute for Brain Science at Columbia University.
Other prizes tend to place more focus on individuals, but in most cases, Kavli winners are team efforts recognized for 10 to 20 years of collective work, said Jessell, also a panelist Thursday in New York.
Fred Kavli of Santa Barbara founded and led the Kavlico Corp. in the mid-1950s. The company, initially based in Van Nuys, moved to Moorpark in 1986 and became one of the largest suppliers of sensors for aeronautic, automotive and industrial applications.
In 2000, the Norwegian-born physicist sold the company for $345 million and founded the Kavli Foundation to advance science and promote public understanding and support for scientists and their work.
UC Santa Barbara in 2001 became one of the first to receive a Kavli Foundation grant, establishing the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics. The foundation now lists 15 other Kavli institutes at universities across the globe.
Kavli prize winners are chosen independently. The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters appoints three committees to select winners. Those committee members are recommended by scientific organizations throughout the world.
Through the program, Kavli officials hope young people will see the difference one can make by being a scientist, Conn said. "One of the reasons we created the Kavli Prizes was to try to bring more to the public about why science is so important in our lives and the well-being of our population," he said.
Kavli could not be reached for comment Thursday but was in New York for the announcements.
"He was beaming," Conn said. "He was extraordinarily pleased for the winners and who the winners are. He was pleased, as I am, about the mix of men and women, the mix of fields that were honored and also the rigor with which the winners were selected."
On the Net: http://www.kavliprize.no