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Exoplanets, Biomedicine, and Recognizing Faces
2024 Kavli Prize Announcement

The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters today announced the 2024 Kavli Prize Laureates in the fields of astrophysics, nanoscience and neuroscience. Eight scientists from three countries are honored for their research that has broadened our understanding of the big, the small and the complex. The laureates in each field will share $1 million USD.

The 2024 Kavli Prize recognize groundbreaking science for the discovery and characterization of extra-solar planets and their atmospheres; foundational research integrating synthetic nanoscale materials for biomedical use; and the localization of areas in the brain specialized for face recognition and processing.


This year’s Kavli Prize Laureates are:

Kavli Prize in Astrophysics: David Charbonneau (Canada/USA) and Sara Seager (Canada/USA)

Kavli Prize in Nanoscience: Robert S. Langer (USA), Armand Paul Alivisatos (USA) and Chad A. Mirkin (USA)

Kavli Prize in Neuroscience: Nancy Kanwisher (USA), Winrich Freiwald (Germany) and Doris Ying Tsao (USA)

“The Kavli Prize 2024 honors outstanding researchers doing fundamental science that moves the world forward. They are exploring planets outside our solar system; they have broadened the scientific field of nanoscience towards biomedicine; and they are adding to our understanding of the neurological basis of face recognition.”

– Lise Øvreås, president at The Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters


Searching for life beyond Earth

David Charbonneau
Sara Seager

David Charbonneau and Sara Seager

The 2024 Kavli Prize in Astrophysics honors Sara Seager and David Charbonneau for discoveries of exoplanets and the characterization of their atmospheres. They pioneered methods for the detection of atomic species in planetary atmospheres and the measurement of their thermal infrared emission, setting the stage for finding the molecular fingerprints of atmospheres around both giant and rocky planets. Their contributions have been key to the enormous progress seen in the last 20 years in the exploration of myriad exo-planets.

“Humans have always looked towards the stars for discoveries. The pivotal research conducted by Seager and Charbonneau has been an important first step towards finding new planets and strong evidence of life elsewhere in the universe,” remarked Viggo Hansteen, Chair of the Astrophysics Committee.

David Charbonneau led the team that used the transit method to discover a giant exoplanet (HD 209458b). He pioneered the application of space-based observatories to perform the first studies of the atmosphere of giant extrasolar planets. This new method measures the tiny amount of light blocked by such a planet as it passes in front of its host star. Charbonneau has also used the transit method to study exoplanetary atmospheres, measuring molecular spectra using both filtered starlight and infrared emission from the planets themselves. He demonstrated these two approaches with observations from the Hubble Space Telescope in 2002 and the Spitzer Space Telescope three years later.

Sara Seager pioneered the theoretical study of planetary atmospheres and predicted the presence of atomic and molecular species detectable by transit spectroscopy, most notably the alkali gases. She predicted how transits could be used to measure atomic and molecular characteristics in exoplanetary atmospheres, which is crucial for identifying biomarkers – signs of life. Seager made outstanding contributions to the understanding of planets with masses below that of Neptune. She also carried out extensive research on starshades – enormous petal-like structures designed to shield space observatories from the glare of a faraway Sun-like star – and was among the first to recognize their importance in detecting and characterizing the faint light from any Earth-like planet orbiting the star.

2024 Kavli Prize in Astrophysics


Integrating nanomaterials for biomedical advances

Robert S. Langer
Armand Paul Alivisatos
Chad A. Mirkin

Robert S. Langer, Armand Paul Alivisatos and Chad A. Mirkin

Robert S. Langer, Armand Paul Alivisatos and Chad A. Mirkin

The 2024 Kavli Prize in Nanoscience honors Robert S. Langer, Armand Paul Alivisatos and Chad A. Mirkin who each revolutionized the field of nanomedicine by demonstrating how engineering nanoscale materials can advance biomedical research and application. Their discoveries contributed foundationally to the development of therapeutics, vaccines, bioimaging and diagnostics.

“The three scientists, Langer, Alivisatos and Mirkin, have broadened the scientific field of nanoscience, building from fundamental research. By scientific curiosity they have become inventors for the future of nanoscience and biomedicine,” stated Bodil Holst, Chair of the Nanoscience Committee.

Robert S. Langer was the first to develop nano-engineered materials that enabled the controlled release, or regular flow, of drug molecules. This capability has had an immense impact for the treatment of a range of diseases, such as aggressive brain cancer, prostate cancer and schizophrenia. His work also showed that tiny particles, containing protein antigens, can be used in vaccination, and was instrumental in the development of the delivery of mRNA vaccines.

Armand Paul Alivisatos demonstrated that semiconductor nanocrystals, or quantum dots (nanoparticles that possess bright, size-dependent light-emitting properties), can be used as multicolor probes in bioimaging. Essential to this achievement was the synthesis of biocompatible nanocrystals. Semiconductor nanocrystals became the basis for the widely used research and diagnostic tools such as live cell tracking, labelling and in vivo imaging.

Chad A. Mirkin engineered spherical nucleic acids (SNA) using a gold nanoparticle as the core, and a cloud of radially distributed DNA or RNA strands as the shell. He was then able to show how SNAs can be combined to create larger structures and how they can be used in biodiagnostics. His discovery led to the development of fast, automated point-of-care medical diagnostic systems.

2024 Kavli Prize in Nanoscience


Understanding recognition of faces

Nancy Kanwisher
Winrich Freiwald
Doris Ying Tsao

Nancy Kanwisher, Winrich Freiwald and Doris Tsao

Nancy Kanwisher, Winrich Freiwald and Doris Tsao

The 2024 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience honors Nancy Kanwisher, Doris Ying Tsao and Winrich Freiwald for the discovery of a specialized system within the brain to recognize faces. Their discoveries have provided basic principles of neural organization and made the starting point for further research on how the processing of visual information is integrated with other cognitive functions.

“Kanwisher, Freiwald and Tsao together discovered a localized and specialized neocortical system for face recognition. Their outstanding research will ultimately further our understanding of recognition not only of faces, but objects and scenes,” commented Kristine Walhovd, Chair of the Neuroscience Committee.

Nancy Kanwisher was the first to prove that a specific area in the human neocortex is dedicated to recognizing faces, now called the fusiform face area. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) she found individual differences in the location of this area and devised an analysis technique to effectively localize specialized functional regions in the brain. This technique is now widely used and applied to domains beyond the face recognition system.

Elaboratingon Kanwisher’s findings, Winrich Freiwald and Doris Ying Tsao studied macaques and mapped out six distinct brain regions, known as the face patch system, including these regions’ functional specialization and how they are connected. By recording the activity of individual brain cells, they revealed how cells in some face patches specialize in faces with particular views.

Tsao proceeded to identify how the face patches work together to identify a face, through a specific code that enables single cells to identify faces by assembling information of facial features. For example, some cells respond to the presence of hair, others to the distance between the eyes.

Freiwald uncovered that a separate brain region, called the temporal pole, accelerates our recognition of familiar faces, and that some cells are selectively responsive to familiar faces.

2024 Kavli Prize in Neuroscience