Top-drawer stars win astrophysics prize

Local | Wallis Wang 2 Jun 2021

Two female astrophysicists have won the Shaw Prize in Astronomy this year for confirming the existence of neutron stars with ultra-strong magnetic fields.

Physics professor Victoria Kaspi, 53, who is also director of the McGill Space Institute at McGill University in Canada, and Chryssa Kouveliotou, 68, chair of the physics department at George Washington University in the United States, will share the prize of US$1.2 million (HK$9.36 million).

The prize for life science and medicine went to Cornell University cell biologist Scott Emr, 67, whose research explained how bio-components were transferred on cell membranes.

The Shaw Prize - an international award established in 2002 in Hong Kong - is awarded to researchers who have made distinguished contributions to astronomy, life science and medicine, and mathematical sciences. The prize for each field carries a monetary award of US$1.2 million.

The Shaw Prize Foundation has yet to confirm whether there will be a ceremony this year, as it will depend on the pandemic situation.

In announcing the winners, the prize selection committee said the two astrophysicists developed new and precise observational techniques and established magnetars as a new and important class of astrophysical objects.

They also explained that magnetars are a class of highly magnetized neutron stars linked to a wide range of astrophysical phenomena.

Biologist Emr won his award after discovering an endosomal sorting complex required for transport pathway in cells, explaining how bio-components are transferred on cell membranes.

"Scott Emr has transformed our understanding of the pathways and mechanisms involved in membrane trafficking, a process that is central to life," the selection committee said.

Foundation council member Chan Wai-yee, also the vice-president of the Chinese University, said that Emr first embarked on the path to his discovery 20 years ago.

Since then, Chan said, Emr's theory has been used in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease. Chan also held out the possibility that it could also help combat the coronavirus in the future.

The prize for mathematical science was awarded to emeritus professor Jean-Michel Bismut at Universite Paris Sud in France and New York University professor Jeff Cheeger for their contributions to modern geometry.



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