Nobel Prizes play catch-up to Shaws

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 October, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 October, 2011, 12:00am


When the Shaw Prize was established in 2004 to recognise the highest achievements in the sciences, it was immediately billed as Hong Kong's answer to the Nobel Prize.

This year, it's turning out to be a predictor of the Nobels.

The first Nobel Prize awarded in this year's round, in medicine, went on Monday to American Bruce Beutler and French scientist Jules Hoffmann for work that unlocked the secrets of the body's immune system. Both earlier this year won the Shaw Prize in life science and medicine, along with Ruslan Medzhitov, of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. (A third Nobel winner for medicine, Ralph Steinman of Canada, died of cancer on Friday, at age 68, three days before the award was announced.)

The Nobel Prize for physics, announced on Tuesday, went to Americans Saul Perlmutter and Adam Riess and American-Australian Brian Schmidt. The same three won the Shaw in 2006 for astronomy - for the same discovery: that the expansion rate of the universe is accelerating. Five years after the Hong Kong awards, the Nobel committee is calling that an 'astounding' finding: 'If the expansion will continue to speed up, the universe will end in ice.'

It all speaks well of the acumen of Shaw Prize judges and advisers in identifying true giants in the three fields in which they bestow the US$1 million awards: astronomy, life science and medicine, and mathematical sciences. Rather than some junior version of the Nobels, the Shaws are proving to be serious indicators of merit.

Run Run Shaw, the 103-year-old co-founder of TVB, has done Hong Kong a favour. The prize he originated gives the city a legitimate place in the world's intellectual spotlight.