Welcome Speech by Professor Frank H Shu
Acting Chairman of Board of Adjudicators
Welcome to the fifteenth annual Shaw Prize Award Presentation Ceremony. The Shaw Prize was established in 2002 to honour international scientists in the fields of Astronomy, Life Science and Medicine, and Mathematical Sciences. The inaugural Shaw Prize Award Ceremony took place in 2004. Tonight, at this first Ceremony since the passing of Mrs Mona Shaw, we remember with gratitude her fiery spirit that transformed a vision of honouring excellence into reality with the creation of the Shaw Prize.
Together with Mr Run Run Shaw, Mrs Shaw forged an alliance of entrepreneurship and philanthropy, inspiring the quest for knowledge and highlighting outstanding achievements. A woman of great humility, Mrs Shaw was the mighty force of progress and her dedicated strength and energy continue to inspire her fellow Council Members in sustaining the Shaw Prize. Future generations will, under the direction of the Shaw Prize Foundation, continue to broaden the Shaw vision of advancing knowledge through scientific discoveries, thus strengthening and enhancing the aims of the Shaw Prize. Those of us who have been involved in the enterprise are committed to carry on Mr and Mrs Shaw’s vision.
Tonight, we honour three scientists in the designated fields for their distinguished contributions. They are Dr Jean-Loup Puget in Astronomy; Professor Mary-Claire King in Life Science and Medicine; and Professor Luis A Caffarelli in Mathematical Sciences.
Speech by Professor Reinhard Genzel
Chairman of Astronomy Selection Committee
The infrared-to-millimetre spectral range (1μm to 1cm) offers a unique and little explored window on the Universe. It probes cold, dusty objects such as dense interstellar material, forming stars, and obscured young galaxies. The longest wavelengths, near a few millimetres, also give information on conditions when the Universe was around 400,000 years old, via the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). To detect the faint cosmic signals in this waveband in the presence of very large instrumental, atmospheric and astronomical foreground radiation is challenging. It requires special cryogenic sensors, and optimized telescopes above the Earth’s atmosphere and in space. The 2018 SHAW Laureate in Astronomy, Jean-Loup Puget from the Institut d’Astrophysique Spatiale in Orsay near Paris, has made pivotal contributions to all these aspects.
In the 1970s mysterious spectral emission features between 3 and 12 μm were discovered in Galactic reflection nebulae. Léger & Puget (1984) and independently Allamandola, Tielens and Barker (1985) proposed that these puzzling features come from large ‘Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbon’ (PAH) molecules, similar to car exhaust, and composed mainly of carbon-hydrogen rings. The PAHs represent a new form of interstellar ‘dust’. Dust grains and PAHs are heated when they absorb ultraviolet radiation. They re-emit this energy as a thermal infrared continuum and as PAH features. Its total intensity measures cosmic star formation, integrated over the entire history of the Universe. In 1996 Puget and co-workers discovered in data of the NASA COBE satellite a pervasive 100 μm background radiation plausibly from an active star formation phase about 10 billion years ago. Detailed infrared measurements with the ISO, Spitzer and Herschel space telescopes have since confirmed this discovery and shown that this was the epoch when most of stars in galaxies were formed.
The culmination of Puget’s work, building on his technical and scientific knowledge, has been his leadership of the development and scientific exploitation of the High Frequency Instrument (HFI) on the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite. Between 2009 and 2013, Puget and his international team used HFI‘s novel cryogenic sensors to measure the CMB plus the foreground emission due to the Milky Way’s dust and gas with unprecedented sensitivity and angular resolution. The HFI is also sensitive to foreground dust emission, which dominates at short wavelengths. Planck’s ability to separate foregrounds was unique and critical for its success. Planck measures the cosmological parameters to exquisite precision − for example, the total density of dark matter to 2%.
These precise results potentially allow probing the hypothesized inflationary era, within a small fraction of one second after the Big Bang, when amplified quantum fluctuations may have created both the initial density fluctuations and relic gravitational waves. The gravitational waves induce very weak distortions of the CMB, but their detection is challenging due to possible confusion with dust foreground emission. Planck’s precise foreground separation showed decisively that the true level of primordial gravitational waves must lie below the predictions of the simplest inflationary models.
The Universe expands in an accelerating manner. If Einstein’s relativistic theory of gravity is correct, this requires a non-zero vacuum energy density. Alternatively the acceleration may indicate a modification of the strength of gravity on large scales. Planck can measure this effect, because the CMB radiation is deflected by intervening mass fluctuations. The ‘gravitational lensing’ mapped comprehensively by Planck matches the expectations of standard gravity.
Finally, the CMB detects scattering due to ionized gas that is created by the first stars and quasars. The latest Planck data indicate that the onset of this ‘reionization era’ was more recent than previously considered: at a redshift of 8.8, or 600 million years after the Big Bang.
Many scientists and engineers world-wide have contributed to and made possible the success of the ESA Planck mission, yet Jean-Loup Puget’s wide-ranging contributions and leadership in infrared and submillimetre astronomy stand out and make him a fitting recipient for the 2018 Shaw Prize.
Speech by Professor Randy Schekman
Chairman of Life Science and Medicine Selection Committee
Breast cancer is the only cancer that is considered universal among women worldwide, and is the second leading cause of cancer death among women. According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer makes up 25 percent of all new cancer diagnoses in women globally. In 2012, nearly 1.7 million new cases were diagnosed worldwide. But great strides in detection and treatment have been made in the past two decades, especially one that we recognize this evening in the work of Professor Mary-Claire King, this year’s Shaw Prize winner in the Life Sciences, who discovered the genetic basis of some forms of breast cancer.
King’s journey to her breakthrough began in graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley where she studied with Allan Wilson. Together, King and Wilson demonstrated the genetic similarities between chimpanzees and humans. They showed that these primates shared ninety-nine percent of their DNA and suggested that chimpanzees and humans evolved from a common ancestor. Before King and Wilsons’ discovery, many scientists were still doubtful of the relationship between chimpanzees and humans. However, King and Wilsons’ genetic evidence supported the theory that primates have a genetic tie, which indicates a common ancestor.
Back when King started her work in the 1970s, the link between cancer and genetics hadn’t been made. The running theory at the time was that cancer was viral.
“I thought genetics, evolutionary biology and statistics might add something to the newly- launched War on Cancer. And my closest childhood friend had died of cancer. I wanted to try,” she told The New York Times in 2015.
On her own as a faculty member at Berkeley in 1990, and then at the University of Washington, King discovered that the gene BRCA1 on chromosome 17 was associated with the occurrence of breast and ovarian cancers. Over the course of 16 years, King collected data from breast cancer patients and tested her hypothesis that some cases of breast cancer were genetically linked to BRCA1. Later, she also identified the gene BRCA2 on chromosome 13 as associated with breast and ovarian cancer. King found that these genes are responsible for expressing proteins BRCA1 and BRCA2. Those proteins are tumor suppressor proteins, meaning they repair damaged DNA in the cell and thereby prevent cancer. However, if these genes are mutated, then the proteins they produce may not function effectively. If these proteins are unable to repair damaged DNA, then a cell may become cancerous. King found that individuals with one of the inherited gene mutations had an eighty-one percent risk of getting breast cancer over a lifetime, whereas individuals without the mutation had an 8.1 percent risk of developing breast cancer over a lifetime. King reported that approximately five to ten percent of all breast cancer cases are due to BRCA gene mutations. King’s discovery allowed women to get screened for mutant forms of these genes to become informed of their risk for developing breast and ovarian cancer.
In addition to her seminal achievement with the discovery of the first breast cancer genes, Dr. King has made critical contributions in the application of genetic tools to uncover and resolve human rights abuses. Beginning in the late 1980’s, in collaboration with the Grandmothers of the Plaza del Mayo of Argentina, King identified their grandchildren who were kidnapped as infants after their parents were murdered during the Argentinian military dictatorship of 1975-83. Her laboratory assisted the Grandmothers in the reunification of more than 100 families. In collaboration with the United Nations Forensic Anthropology Team, Dr. King applied DNA sequencing to identify the remains of victims of extra-judicial execution on six continents. Working with the US military and the families of those missing in action, she identified the remains of US soldiers who had gone missing in Vietnam, Cambodia, Korea and during WWII. Her approach is now used by government and U.N. forensic teams worldwide. It has been used to identify the remains of an American serviceman who was buried beneath the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington National cemetery for 14 years, as well as victims of natural disasters and man-made tragedies such as 9/11.
In 2014, King received a prestigious Lasker award for her work in breast cancer genetics as well as human rights, and in 2016 President Barack Obama acknowledged her work with the National Medal of Science.
“At a time when most scientists believed that cancer was caused by viruses, she relentlessly pursued her hunch that certain cancers were linked to inherited genetic mutations,” Obama said at the ceremony. “This self-described ‘stubborn’ scientist kept going until she proved herself right.” Tonight, we celebrate her courage .
Speech by Professor Timothy Gowers
Chairman of Mathematical Sciences Selection Committee
Luis Caffarelli is the world leader in many aspects of the study of partial differential equations, a vast area which is of central importance to mathematics and physics, and also to other fields such as economics and biology. He was born in Buenos Aires in 1948 and studied there until he received his PhD in 1972, before spending the rest of his illustrious career in the United States.
When we think about equations in mathematics, what comes to mind first is probably a statement such as 2x+5=11. Here we have an unknown number x and some information about it, and our task is to calculate x. With a partial differential equation, the unknown quantity is not a number but a far more complicated object, such as a mathematical function that describes the future behaviour of a fluid. This makes finding solutions extremely hard — in fact, it is usually impossible — so the main focus is on trying to prove that solutions exist and saying something about their properties.
Even this is very difficult, however. For example, it is not known whether the Navier-Stokes equation, which determines how fluids behave, will always have a solution that is valid for all time. I don’t want to alarm you, but mathematicians cannot prove that the glass of wine in front of you isn’t about to explode. A prize of one million dollars is offered for anybody who can resolve this problem. Amongst Caffarelli’s numerous remarkable achievements is a famous paper written with Joe Kohn and Louis Nirenberg that is still regarded, thirty-five years later, as the biggest step towards solving it that anybody has taken so far. And this is just one small example of what he has done: in general, his impact on the field has been enormous and highly diverse. Rather than giving you a dry list of his achievements, I would prefer to quote two other famous mathematicians talking about Caffarelli, because this will give a more vivid picture of the awe with which he is regarded.
Here, first, is Alessio Figalli, who was awarded a Fields Medal last month: While I was at the Ecole Politechnique I was offered a position in Austin, Texas where Luis Caffarelli, a very famous mathematician, was based. I always admired him so much that I thought this was an unmissable opportunity to learn from him. I was 25 back then so it was the perfect moment for me to try the US experience. I spent seven years there, and it was great, I learnt so much there and I learnt so much from Caffarelli.
And here is Louis Nirenberg: Fantastic intuition, just remarkable. When we worked together, I had a hard time keeping up with him. He somehow immediately sees things that other people don’t see, but he has trouble explaining them. He says things and writes very little, so when we were working at the board, I would always say, “Luis, please write more, write down more.” Once I said to him, “Luis, to use a Biblical expression, ‘Where is it written?’” Somebody said he once heard a talk in which Luis proved something in partial differential equations—using nothing! Just somehow out of thin air, he can come up with ideas. He’s really fantastic.