Glittering award for the bright lights of science

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 08 June, 2011, 12:00am


An astrophysicist and a Nasa scientist who uncovered the origin of the universe's brightest known source are among the winners of this year's Shaw Prize, dubbed Asia's Nobel Prize.

The US$1 million awards handed out for each of the three categories - life science and medicine, astronomy and mathematical sciences - were split this year as none had a single winner. US-based researchers continued to dominate all categories.

Enrico Costa of the Italian National Institute of Astrophysics and Gerald Fishman, the chief scientist at Nasa, shared the astronomy prize for research which demonstrates that gamma ray bursts are the brightest known source of light in the universe.

Gamma ray bursts are beams of intense radiation associated with supernova explosions or the formation of black holes in distant galaxies. Lasting from a few milliseconds to several minutes, they outshine any stars or galaxies in the universe. They release as much energy as the sun should in its 10-billion-year lifetime, and are about a million trillion times as bright.

Kenneth Young, a vice-chairman of the Shaw Prize Foundation's board of adjudicators, said: 'Scientists knew little about this part of the universe before. Thanks to this discovery human beings can learn more about distant parts of the universe, the old universe, billions of light years away.'

Meanwhile, Jules Hoffman from France, and Ruslan Medzhitov and Bruce Beutler, both based in the US, beat off competition from more than 100 entries to snatch the life science and medicine prize. They were honoured for their work in opening the floodgates to research on the innate immune system, which protects people from auto-immune disease.

The prize for mathematical sciences was shared between Demetrios Christodoulou and Richard Hamilton for their work in mathematical physics and geometry, respectively.

Hamilton, Davies professor of mathematics at Columbia University, introduced the Ricci flow - essentially a proposal about how to stretch a surface depending on the way it curves.

'In mathematics, the trick is that certain apparently obvious - and to lay people trivial - statements, if you want to prove them precisely, are a great challenge. You don't know if they are generally true until you have given precise proof,' said Kenneth Young, a vice-chairman of the board of adjudicators.

The Shaw Prize was first awarded in 2004 and established by media magnate and philanthropist Run Run Shaw. No China-based researchers have won it since 2006, although a Chinese-born professor in San Diego won the astronomy award in 2009.

'Scientific development did not begin until the 20th century in China. Based on this, it's not unusual that China's modern scientific and technological development is lagging far behind the Western world,' said Yang Chen-ning, the chairman of the board of adjudicators.