Million Dollar Prizes to Go to Astrophysicists, Immunologists, and Geometricians

NASA/Swift/Cruz deWilde

Pinpointing the origins of gamma-ray bursts, determining the workings of innate immunity, and extending the use of differential equations to applications in relativity are achievements paying off in Shaw Prizes for the scientists involved. Among the world's richest science prizes, with $1 million awarded in each of three categories, the Shaw Prizes were announced today in Hong Kong.

Enrico Costa of the Institute of Space Astrophysics and Cosmic Physics in Rome and Gerald Fishman of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, won the astronomy prize for leading the development of space missions that started unraveling the secrets of gamma-ray bursts (pictured).

The bursts were first detected in the late 1960s. But the origins of these seconds- to-minutes-long flashes of gamma rays remained a puzzle until observations by the Burst and Transient Source Experiment (BATSE), a cluster of gamma ray detectors aboard NASA's Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, launched in 1991, and the Dutch-Italian satellite BeppoSAX, put in orbit in 1996, associated the bursts with supernova explosions and mergers of neutron stars in distant galaxies. Fishman is principal investigator of BATSE; Costa headed the BeppoSAX team.

All plants and animals have a built-in resistance to pathogens called innate immunity that is more basic and general than the better-known adaptive immunity that responds to specific infections or vaccines. Innate immunity is the first line of defense against pathogens in all plants and animals. Jules Hoffmann of the University of Strasbourg in France first identified a key molecule, called Toll, involved in the innate immune response in fruit flies. Ruslan Medzhitov of Yale University then found homologous molecules, Toll-like receptors, in humans. Bruce Beutler of the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, California, completed the puzzle by showing how the Toll-like receptors activate the innate immune system. Elucidating the molecular mechanism at work in innate immunity earned the three scientists the Shaw Prize for life science and medicine.

Demetrios Christodoulou of ETH Zurich in Switzerland and Richard Hamilton of Columbia University in New York City won the mathematics prize for their work on nonlinear partial differential equations in Lorentzian and Riemannian geometry and their applications to general relativity and topology.

Hong Kong media mogul Run Run Shaw, whose philanthropic efforts focus on science and medicine research and education, established the prizes in 2002. The winners will receive their awards at a ceremony in Hong Kong in September.