2014 Kavli Prize winner in neuroscience Brenda Milner, speaking at McGill University in 2009.
2014 Kavli Prize winner in neuroscience Brenda Milner, speaking at McGill University in 2009.

The winners of this year’s Kavli Prizes were officially announced yesterday, Thursday, May 29.  Nine scientists from around the world will share in each of three $1 million prizes, awarded in the fields of astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience.

The biennial Kavli Prizes were established in 2005 as a partnership between the Kavli Foundation, the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, and the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research; the first prizes were awarded in 2008.

Among the three winners of this year’s neuroscience award was the pioneering neuropsychologist Brenda Milner, whose work with Henry Molaison, or Patient H.M., led to major discoveries in the areas of memory and cognition.

You can read more about her work and Patient H.M.’s legacy in this post on the BioSurplus blog.

Fred Kavli And The Kavli Foundation

Fred Kavli was born in Norway in 1927 and grew up on a small farm in the town of Eresfjord.  He went on to earn a degree in applied physics from the Norwegian Institute of Technology in 1955; inspired by time his father had spent living in the United States, Kavli himself set out for the U.S. soon after graduation, and within a few years of his arrival started a company, Kavlico, that developed sophisticated sensor technology.

Kavli shepherded the company through tremendous growth over the years: its sensors have been used in everything from car engines to the space shuttle and Poseidon missiles.  He sold Kavlico, now owned by French conglomerate Schneider Electric, in 2000 to C-Mac Industries for $345 million.

Fred Kavli, founder of the Kavli Prize.
Fred Kavli, founder of the Kavli Prize.

After selling his company, Kavli set out to find the most efficient way to establish a philanthropic foundation.  His goal was to use his wealth to support scientific research and he wanted to make sure that his resources would yield the maximum benefits.

When he spoke with the leaders of several universities, Kavli found out that what they most needed was seed money to back cutting-edge research that might not otherwise receive funding due to its experimental nature and the risk of failure.  To meet these needs, he created the Kavli Foundation, which in turn established 17 Kavli Institutes with endowments of $7.5 million each.

The universities where the institutes are located, ranging from the Kavli Institute for Astronomy and Astrophysics at Peking University in Beijing to the Kavli Institute for Brain and Mind here at UC San Diego, accept the money with an agreement to seek matching funding. The endowments currently provide $400,000 yearly for research, and the foundation plans to increase its contribution to $10 million for each institute, which, with matching funds, will provide $1 million per year in funding.

Fred Kavli died at his home in Santa Barbara, CA last year at the age of 86.

2014 Award Winners

This year’s winners come from around the globe—from Russia to Canada, to Germany and France—and have done work on topics as varied as the theory of cosmic inflation and nano-optics.

The winners in the field of astrophysics were MIT’s Alan Guth, Stanford’s Andrei Linde and Alexei Starobinsky of the Landau Institute for Theoretical Physics at the Russian Academy of Sciences.  Each of the three scientists has made significant contributions to the theory of cosmic inflation, which asserts that the universe expanded exponentially for a short time at a speed faster than light at the beginning of the Big Bang.

Winning the nanoscience prize were Thomas W. Ebbesen of France’s Louis Pasteur University, Stefan W. Hell of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Germany, and Imperial College London’s John B. Pendry.

The three researchers have done major work in the development of nano-optics, which use light to view objects that are smaller than the wavelength of visible light.  It was previously held that only details larger than 200 nanometers could be imaged using existing technology.

Finally, the neuroscience award went to John O’Keefe of University College London, Marcus Raichle of the Washington University School of Medicine in Saint Louis, MI, and, as I mentioned above, Brenda Milner—who at 95 years old is still going strong—of Montreal’s McGill University.  All three have made seminal contributions to the study of the regions of the brain involved in memory.

The awards will be presented in Oslo, Norway on September 9.