Our ears contain incredible machines to help us make sense of sound waves. Albert James Hudspeth, together with Robert Fettiplace and Christine Petit, won the 2018 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience for discovering the mechanisms by which cells in our ears translate the mechanical force of changing air pressure into an electrochemical message the brain will interpret as sound. These cells even have active systems that let them tune, boost, and protect our hearing.

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This article is part of a special report, “The Biggest Questions in Science,” sponsored by The Kavli Prize. It was produced independently by Scientific American and Nature editors, who have sole responsibility for all the editorial content.