Six U.S. Born Scientists Win Asian Prize

5/30/2013
Six U.S. born researchers joined the ranks of Shaw Prize laureates Tuesday, as the annual award marked its 10th anniversary for recognizing scientists and scholars in the fields of astronomy, life science and medicine, and mathematical sciences.

The Shaw Prize was established in 2002 and began honoring individuals annually in 2004. It is named after the 105-year-old Hong Kong media titan and philanthropist Run Run Shaw. It is often referred to informally as the Nobel Prize of Asia.

Several previous recipients of the Shaw Prize have gone on to win Nobel Prizes, including Shinya Yamanaka, of Japan, who won the Shaw Prize in life science and medicine in 2008. Last year, Dr. Yamanaka shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with John B. Gurdon of the U.K. for their work in cellular reprogramming.

Each prize receives US$1 million, and in the case of two or more winners for one prize, the award money is shared.

This year, Steven A. Balbus and John F. Hawley were honored “for their discovery and study of the magnetorotational instability, and for demonstrating that this instability leads to turbulence and is a viable mechanism for angular momentum transport in astrophysical accretion disks,” the selection committee said. Accretion “plays a key role in star formation, mass transfer in stellar binaries, and the growth of supermassive black holes,” the committee said.

Prof. Kenneth Young, a member of the Shaw Prize council and professor of physics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, explained in an interview: “If you start off with a system that is rotating and it comes together like an [ice] skater who brings his arms in, it speeds up the rotation—that’s angular momentum.”

Dr. Balbus, who was born in Philadelphia in 1953, is Savilian professor of astronomy at the University of Oxford in the U.K. Dr. Hawley, who was born in Annapolis, Md., in 1959, is associate dean for the sciences, and a professor and chair of the astronomy department at the University of Virginia.

The prize for life science and medicine was shared by Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young “for their discovery of molecular mechanisms underlying circadian rhythms,” the committee said, which are guided by biological clocks and drive the waking and sleeping cycle. The same fundamental mechanisms of circadian rhythms first identified by the three scientists in fruit flies “also operate in other organisms, including humans,” the committee said. “Links have already been made between these mechanisms and human disease,” it said.

Dr. Hall was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1945 and is visiting professor at the University of Maine. Dr. Rosbash was born in Kansas City, Mo., in 1944 and is professor of biology at Brandeis University. Dr. Young, who was born in 1949 in Miami, is vice president for Academic Affairs and professor at the Rockefeller University.

The mathematical sciences prize was awarded to David L. Donoho for his “contributions to modern mathematical statistics and in particular the development of optimal algorithms for statistical estimation in the presence of noise and of efficient techniques for sparse representation and recovery in large data-sets,” the committee said.

The prime objective of Dr. Donoho’s research is to apply mathematical and statistical tools to solve real-life problems, said Prof. Pak-chung Ching of CUHK and a member of the Shaw Prize council. For example, modern global communication often involves voice signals having to go through several networks as they are transmitted, Prof. Ching said, but sometimes the audio quality contains interference. “How are we going to recover the original signal?” he said. Using statistical means, Dr. Donoho developed algorithms that would diminish noise and interference “by recovering or reconstructing the original signal as much as possible,” Prof. Ching said.

Dr. Donoho was born in 1957 in Los Angeles and is professor of statistics at Stanford University.

The Hong Kong-based Shaw Prize Foundation recognizes individuals “without regard to race, nationality, gender or religious belief, who have made remarkable achievements in these areas and who have contributed exceptionally to the advancement of civilization and the well-being of mankind,” Prof. Young said just before the awards were announced.

This year’s laureates will receive their awards at a ceremony in Hong Kong on Sept. 23.
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