Scientists competing to build humongous telescopes, elucidate the machinery by which brain cells signal each other and manipulate individual atoms and molecules into submicroscopic structures were among the winners of one of the richest prizes in science, the $1 million Kavli Prize, announced Thursday by the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters.
The prizes, one each in astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience, are awarded every other year. This year, eight scientists will share the money, $3 million in all, which comes from the Kavli Foundation, set up by Fred Kavli, a Norwegian-American physicist, entrepreneur and philanthropist.
The astrophysics prize will be divided three ways between Jerry Nelson of the University of California, Santa Cruz; J. Roger P. Angel of the University of Arizona; and Raymond N. Wilson, formerly of the European Southern Observatory in Garching, Germany.
Dr. Nelson, a physicist-turned-astronomer, builds giant telescope mirrors — like those in the 10-meter-diameter Keck telescopes on Mauna Kea, Hawaii, currently the largest on the planet, and the Thirty Meter Telescope, which the California Institute of Technology and its collaborators now hope to build there — out of small segments. Dr. Angel, on the other hand, casts monolithic mirrors up to 8 meters in diameter in a rotating furnace, and seven of them would be the heart of a proposed 25-meter telescope known as the Giant Magellan to be built in Chile.
Dr. Wilson pioneered the use of a technology known as active optics, in which computer-controlled supports correct the shapes of telescope mirrors to cancel the distortions caused by gravity, wind and temperature, allowing astronomers to build mirrors that are thinner and lighter. The neuroscience prize will also be shared three ways, by Thomas Südhof of the Stanford School of Medicine, Richard H. Scheller of Genentech and James E. Rothman of Yale for work on the molecular basis of nervous transmission.
In the 1980s, Dr. Südhof and Dr. Scheller decoded the genes that control the functioning of tiny bubbles of fluid called vesicles, which send neurotransmitters across the synapses between cells. In particular, they found that a protein that senses calcium acts as a switch for transmission. Dr. Rothman investigated how the vesicles involved in a wide range of physiological activities are generated and fuse together..
The prize for nanoscience will go to Donald M. Eigler of I.B.M.’s Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif., and Nadrian C. Seeman of New York University for developing the ability to indulge in architecture and engineering on the smallest scales imaginable.
In 1989, Dr. Eigler succeeded in picking up a single atom and moving it precisely to a different location. Among his subsequent achievements was spelling out the letters “IBM” using 35 xenon atoms. Dr. Seeman invented a field known as structural DNA nanotechnology. He builds robots out of DNA by programming strands of it to stick together into complicated shapes, including cubes, a truncated octahedron and a walking DNA biped for use as nanorobots or in a DNA computer.
The prizes were announced Thursday morning as part of the World Science Festival in a live transmission from Oslo. The winners, who found out their good fortune in a 5:30 a.m. phone call Thursday, will get their prizes in a ceremony in Oslo in September.