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Studies in Microwaves, Fluids Nab Scientists Big Cash

A Russian astrophysicist who pioneered the study of fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background to learn more about the universe and an American chemist whose work led to the development of several new materials have won the Kyoto Prize from the Japanese Inamori Foundation. The 68-year-old Rashid Sunyaev, who is a director of the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics in Garching, Germany, and chief scientist at the Space Research Institute in Moscow, wins the prize for Lifetime Achievement in the Basic Sciences. And 83-year-old John Cahn, an emeritus senior fellow at the U.S. National Institute of Standards and Technology, is being awarded the foundation's prize in Advanced Technology. Each winner will receive a gold medal and a cash prize of 50 million yen—roughly $625,000.

Sunyaev, who now holds both Russian and German citizenship, made fundamental contributions to cosmology in his early career in the 1960s and '70s when researchers in the former Soviet Union enjoyed little contact with the scientific community elsewhere in the world. Working with a tough mentor named Yakov Zel'dovich, Sunyaev showed that the tiny acoustic vibrations in the universe moments after the Big Bang could be observed as temperature and density variations in the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation, the faint afterglow of the Big Bang that suffuses the universe.

Zel'dovich and Sunyaev also predicted distortions in the CMB caused by the effect of high-energy electrons within galaxy clusters.

Researchers have since empirically observed the Sunyaev-Zel'dovich effect, and used it to discover galaxy clusters not detectable through other means.

In the '50s, Cahn, along with John Hilliard, a colleague at General Electric, developed an equation describing how the two components of a so-called binary fluid mixture separate. Cahn went on to establish another theory of material behavior, known as the theory of three-dimensional spinodal decomposition, which has helped others develop better-performing metals, glass, polymers, and thermal materials with unique properties. Cahn's work has also found application in the fields of physics, mathematics, chemistry, engineering, and economics.