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The Kavli Prizes

by Rudy M. Baum
September 27, 2010 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 88, Issue 39

Credit: Madeleine Jacobs
Credit: Madeleine Jacobs

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 and complex engineering approaches to building the enormous mirrors that are the heart of modern Earth-based telescopes.

I know Kavli is not responsible for selecting the winners of the prizes that bear his name, but the recognition of Nelson, Wilson, and Angel and their engineering accomplishments had to give him reason to smile.

Then there’s the award ceremony itself, which offered a bit more Hollywood-style pizzazz than the more buttoned-down Nobel Prize ceremony. Outside the Oslo Concert Hall, a red carpet led across the plaza. A Norwegian marching band—I thought they existed only in the U.S. to perform at football games—played show and popular tunes, and majorettes danced and twirled batons. Inside the hall, the actor Alan Alda and Norwegian artist and former minister of culture Åse Kleveland provided star power as they emceed the event. An orchestra played music ranging from classical to jazz, and four extraordinarily talented young people—Trond Sagbakken (a trumpeter), Didrik Solli-Tangen (a tenor), Silvia Moi (a soprano), and Kerson Leong (a violinist)—gave remarkable solo performances.

And Fred Kavli appeared to enjoy it all very much.

Thanks for reading.

Rudy Baum


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