Every two years, The Kavli Prize announces laureates in astrophysics, neuroscience and nanoscience. The honor goes to scientists whose work has transformed their fields or the understanding of a fundamental process, or both. In that sense, the prize is a window into how science advances, and how our understanding of the universe, our bodies and atomic-scale processes deepens over time.

As a partnership between The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters, The Kavli Foundation and the Norwegian Ministry of Education and Research, this year’s prizes were announced on May 27, in a shared presentation from The Norwegian Academy and the World Science Festival.

The galactic ecosystem

Andrew Fabian of the University of Cambridge was awarded The Kavli Prize in Astrophysics. Fabian, an astronomer, has spent his career studying the intricate interplay between black holes and interstellar gas. What he learned is that galactic clusters, like living ecosystems, harbor a web of interdependent processes that guide their development and evolution.

“When we look at gas between galaxies, which is extremely tenuous, you can nevertheless get organized motions of it," says Fabian, who wrote a feature for Scientific American in 2007. “I’ve been looking at black holes in the centers of these clusters and the cluster atmosphere, trying to understand how the energy from the black hole gets transmitted out into the surrounding gas.”

By studying X-ray spectral emissions from the edge of supermassive black holes, Fabian found that black holes can send out powerful, extremely low-frequency sound waves, which the New York Times described as the lowest musical note in the universe. “It’s possible there is considerable amounts of energy moving around in the sound waves in the clusters of galaxies,” he says. If so, that energy would heat the surrounding interstellar gas clouds, which, in turn, could shape the birth and evolution of the galaxies that emerge from them. 

The mysteries of touch

Although touch is one of the most fundamental human senses, for years its basic workings remained frustratingly out of reach. David Julius, a physiologist at the University of California, San Francisco, and Ardem Patapoutian, a molecular neurobiologist at Scripps Research, changed this by elucidating the neural and molecular basis of temperature and pressure sensitivity—work that won them The Kavli Prize in Neuroscience.

Julius uses natural products to identify molecules that are involved in touch sensation, and he investigated capsaicin, the compound that gives chili peppers their heat. In his work, which was detailed in a Scientific American article last year, he discovered a temperature-sensitive ion channel, TRPV1, that the body uses to sense dangerous heat. That work led to the identification of a family of channels involved in sensing specific ranges of warm and cold temperatures and irritants, some of which are mutated in familial pain syndromes.

For his part, Patapoutian identified a class of proteins, called piezos, that are sensitive to mechanical forces and enable the body to sense pressure, as well as its position in space. That work was touched on in an article in the journal Nature, and the implications were explored in an article in Scientific American.

Beyond solving a persistent mystery, Julius and Patapoutian have opened the possibility of new pain medications. “If you look at pain treatments, many assume it’s sort of a solved problem, but nothing could be further from the truth,” Patapoutian says. There is very little out there that helps patients with conditions such as neuropathic pain, and many of the drugs that do help have some serious side effects, including addiction.

The sensing molecules that Julius and Patapoutian studied are in the peripheral nervous system, and a new class of pain drug that targeted them could therefore avoid that side effect, Patapoutian says. “What David and I studied is a perfect example of hitting molecules that are not in the brain, so targeting them would not have any of the downsides of effecting addiction.”

The atomic view

This year’s Kavli Prize for Nanoscience was awarded to four scientists: Harald Rose of the University of Ulm and the Technical University of Darmstadt; Maximilian Haider of Corrected Electron Optical Systems (CEOS) GmbH; Knut Urban of Forschugszentrum Jülich; and Ondrej L. Krivanek of Nion Company.

In a series of distinct but related advances, the scientists developed methods that enabled electron microscopes to visualize single atoms for the first time since the instruments were invented in 1931. “Before, we could not see atoms very clearly,” Krivanek says. “After, we could.”

Electron microscopes had always been theoretically capable of such clarity, but their lenses always focused electrons in a way that blurred the resulting images. The four scientists solved this problem by devising ways to build lenses that corrected for those aberrations.

In the 1990s, Harald Rose proposed a novel aberration-corrected lens design, the Rose corrector, which would enable aberration correction in both conventional transmission electron microscopes and scanning electron microscopes. Haider developed a corrector based on Rose’s design, then he and Urban built the first aberration-corrected conventional transmission electron microscope, which was detailed in a Nature paper. Krivanek created the first aberration-corrected scanning transmission electron microscope with sub-angstrom resolution.

The ability to perform chemical and structural analysis in three dimensions and at sub-angstrom resolutions, enables more precisely engineered materials and devices. For example, Krivanek says, “All the wonderful modern electronics are based on metal oxide semiconductor field effect transistors, MOSFETs for short. If you get one atom in the wrong place at that interface between the metal and the oxide, it will destroy the properties of that transistor, and your iPhone will not work so well.”

For all the 2020 Kavli Prize laureates, such attention to detail is a hallmark of their work. Armed with that, along with some persistence and a bit of luck, the scientists managed to advance and deepen our understanding of the universe at the smallest, biggest and most complex scales. Congratulations to all.

To learn more about brilliant work of Kavli Prize Laureates, visit The Kavli Prize. To explore more of the biggest questions in science, click here.