Awards Department

Rewarding, enriching--and embarrassing--prominent scientists

Some people eagerly anticipate the Oscars. We at Popular Science spend the early fall wondering which lucky scientists will be deemed deserving of Nobels and MacArthurs. This year was especially exciting because for the second year in a row, one of our Brilliant 10 recipients received a MacArthur fellowship, commonly known as a “genius grant.” Angela Belcher of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of our 2002 class of Brilliant 10, was honored this year for, among other things, genetically
engineering viruses to make metal nanowires. We didn’t predict any
Nobel Prize winners this year but have to note that they, too, are a
fascinating bunch. And as for that guilty pleasure of all science fans, the Ig Nobel Prizes, which honor eccentric and mostly legitimate research, well, we just couldn’t leave them out. Here are some highlights among the honorees:

($500,000 over five years);
Naomi Ehrich Leonard of Princeton University, for developing autonomous underwater vehicles that will coordinate their movement in groups, like flocks of birds or schools of fish.

Vamsi Mootha of Harvard University Medical School, for identifying and characterizing previously unknown proteins in mitochondria (the power plants of cells) that could have a major influence on the understanding and treatment of metabolic diseases such as muscular dystrophy.

($1.4 million divided among category winners);
Physics: David Gross of the University of California at Santa Barbara, David Politzer of the California Institute of Technology and Frank Wilczek of MIT, for describing the strong
nuclear force, which holds the nucleus of an atom together.

Physiology or Medicine: Linda Buck of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and Richard Axel of Columbia University, for determining how the human sense of smell works, both on the physiological and the molecular level. Independently of each other, they discovered that humans have roughly 1,000 genes that code for olfactory receptors. Additionally, each receptor cell in the nose is designed to match up with a specific odor molecule. The combination of various odor receptors enables us to detect about 10,000
distinct smells.

And while we’re on the subject of smell, we should move on to the
mischievous twin of science’s most prestigious prize, the Ig Nobels, which this year recognized a pair of biologists who found that herring communicate through flatulence. Other winners included investigations into the biomechanics of hula-hooping and the effects of country music on suicide rates. Way to go,