Originally posted on the Nature news blog

Posted on behalf of Gene Russo.

The 2014 Kavli Prizes, announced today, were shared among nine scientists for their work on the theory of cosmic inflation, for contributions to the field of nano-optics and for the discovery of specialized brain networks for memory and cognition.

The Kavli Foundation,  has awarded prizes every two years since 2008 in the three disciplines of astrophysics, nanotechnology and neuroscience. The prizes are administered in cooperation with the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters and consists of a cash award of $1 million, as well as a gold medal.

The prize in astrophysics went to Alan Guth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge; Andrei Linde of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California; and Alexei Starobinsky of the Landau Institute for Theoretical Physics at the Russian Academy of Sciences, outside Moscow. The three earned the award based on pioneering work on the theory of cosmic inflation, which holds that the universe underwent a short-lived phase of exponential expansion soon after it came into existence.

Studies of inflation now occupy thousands of theorists. Indeed, recently reported results seemed to suggest that scientists had found the imprint of the Big Bang by examining cosmic microwave background using the BICEP2 telescope; those results, however, have now been called into question.

For the field of nanoscience, the Kavli prizes went to Thomas Ebbesen of the Université Louis Pasteur in Paris; Stefan Hell of the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry in Göttingen, Germany; and John Pendry of Imperial College London. The three countered long-held beliefs about the resolution limits of optical imaging and microscopy, showing that light can interact with nanostructures smaller than light’s wavelength. Previous convention had suggested that only details larger than approximately 200 nanometres could be imaged. In a press release, the Kavli Foundation calls this ability to see and image nanoscale objects “a critical prerequisite to further advances in the broader field of nanoscience”.

Ebbesen’s experiments in the late 1990s, which challenged accepted theory of light propagation through small holes, led to new means of increasing the efficiency and spatial focus of photonic devices and the sensitivity of optical sensors. Hell developed a technique that enables imaging at dimensions far smaller than optical wavelengths, including the processes in living cells. Pendry developed a model for the so-called perfect lens, or superlens using materials such as silver, gold and copper. Pendry is most famous for developing the concept of an invisibility cloak, which like perfect lenses is based on the use of so-called metamaterials that have a negative index of refraction (see ‘Invisibility cloaks are in sight‘).

Kavli awarded prizes for neuroscience to Brenda Milner of McGill University in Montreal; John O’Keefe of University College London; and Marcus Raichle at the Washington University School of Medicine in St Louis, Missouri. Through a variety of research techniques, these neuroscientists elucidated how specialized nerve cells perform different functions and revealed details about brain regions involved in memory. The Kavli announcement notes that memory “defines who we are” and that “loss of memory can have devastating effects on an individual’s personality”.

Milner studied a celebrated patient known as H.M. and others who had incurred brain damage, and found that the medial temporal lobes are necessary for the formation of what is now known as episodic memory. O’Keefe showed that the hippocampus contains neurons that encode an animal’s specific location. And Raichle designed methods for visualizing the brain’s activity.

The Kavli Foundation, based in Oxnard, California, was established in 2000 by Norwegian-born entrepeneur Fred Kavli (1927-2013), and funds more than a dozen Kavli Institutes around the world.

The award ceremony will take place in Oslo on 9 September.

This article is reproduced with permission from the Nature news blog. The article was first published on May 29, 2014.