We take a closer look at these distinguished Shaw Laureates, who will receive their Prize and a monetary reward of US$1.2 million at a Hong Kong ceremony in November, and find out what makes them tick.
1. Matthew Bailes
Matthew Bailes and his fellow astrophysicists and co-laureates, Duncan Lorimer and Maura McLaughlin, have won the Shaw Prize in Astronomy for their work discovering powerful radio emissions called Fast Radio Bursts, or FRBs. These split-second radio bursts, which contain as much energy as the Sun emits over months, are among the most extreme and mysterious phenomena in astronomy, the Shaw Prize organisers say.
Bailes, an Australian, who was known as “The Professor” while still at primary school, was seemingly destined to become an engineer in accordance with his father’s wishes. But astronomy captured his imagination – thanks in part to him watching the groundbreaking 1980 television series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, which used special effects so American astronomer Carl Sagan appeared to be travelling through the solar system – and Bailes came to love the field’s international nature.
“I just fell in love with that show,” says Bailes, who works at Swinburne University of Technology’s Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing, in Melbourne, Australia. “Sagan would talk about black holes and neutron stars. He had something called the ‘spaceship of the imagination’, where he would fly around the universe to show how there’s a mathematical foundation to science.”
After initially discovering the first FRB, then known as a Lorimer Burst, Bailes and his fellow laureates had to contend with a doubtful scientific community, which saw one prominent sceptic betting US$1,000 against their claims. Some radio signals, which were found to have been caused by the use of a microwave at an observatory’s visitor centre, very nearly derailed their findings.
Today, Bailes considers technology as the cutting-edge future of astronomy and other scientific fields – but admits that its use creates challenges, as well as opportunities.
2. Duncan Lorimer
British-born American Duncan Lorimer – who is married to McLaughlin, with both of them based at West Virginia University in the US – was originally Bailes’ graduate student, and the two men have been close friends for over 30 years. Bailes was an “inspirational mentor” for him and very quickly sparked his interest in neutron stars, which are among the likely sources of FRBs, Lorimer says.
“He was probably the reason that I became an astronomer, so getting to share the stage with him [with this award] is a big honour,” he says. “Being able to work – and also share the 2023 Shaw Prize – with my wife, Maura, who has had such a profound impact on this field, has been a great privilege, too.”
The couple have had many common projects, including the one that led to the discovery of FRBs, but have maintained distinct areas of emphasis in their respective fields of research.
Some people might imagine the husband-and-wife astronomers spend their spare time discussing the stars, but they say that while at home their life is almost always focused on their children and their pets.
Lorimer led the project which resulted in the discovery of FRBs, which is why they were originally named Lorimer Bursts after their initial research paper – revealing details of the prototype object found by the team – was published in 2007.
However, not everyone was convinced when the paper was published, Lorimer says. “There were a lot of doubts,” he says. Ultimately, his persistence – together with the efforts of McLaughlin, Bailes and many others through subsequent discoveries – led to the widespread acceptance of FRBs as a new astrophysical phenomenon.
3. Maura McLaughlin
Although FRBs were initially named after Lorimer, and Bailes was the senior professor among the team of astrophysicists, some of American Maura McLaughlin’s contributions to the project actually preceded the first FRB discovery through the development of techniques and tools that were used to make the discovery.
In 2007, after Lorimer and student David Narkevic found the first FRB, she and Lorimer knew they must keep searching for more to understand their origins. But securing funding to continue their research was difficult in the early days, when only one FRB had been discovered, and their proposals for wider-field searches for more such objects were rejected.
“Lorimer’s vision and persistence were key to driving us forwards,” McLaughlin says. “Now, new telescopes are dramatically increasing the number of these objects. Technology will make this work easier in the future.”
She says even now, it is still exciting for them when they discover something that no one has ever seen before. Involving young people in the world of science is incredibly rewarding, too. “With astronomy, and especially the search for pulsars and FRBs, it’s fairly easy to get young students involved,” she says. “It’s a thrilling way in which to expose people to the field and start to build a passion that could ultimately create future Shaw Prize winners.”
4. Patrick Cramer
In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, few fields of science have garnered as much global attention as medicine and biology.
However, breakthroughs in the study of disease and how it propagates in cells had already been achieved thanks to pioneering structural biology of biochemists Patrick Cramer and Eva Nogales, who have shared the 2023 Shaw Prize in Life Science and Medicine. Their research has helped us visualise, at the level of individual atoms, the protein machines responsible for gene transcription – one of life’s fundamental processes.
When the novel coronavirus arrived in Europe in the spring of 2020, the Cramer laboratory was among the first to visualise coronavirus replication and to understand how certain antiviral medications, including Remdesivir, worked on the disease.
Cramer, from Germany, says: “Science was already taking huge steps forward, especially thanks to the advent of the internet and, more recently, the growing use of social media, which has allowed colleagues and peers worldwide to more quickly share their ideas and findings.”
The pandemic prompted a new feeling of solidarity among many people working in the fields of science, but the rate at which ideas were being shared brought with it potential problems as well, he says. “Data is available now before it’s been properly vetted or analysed. Progress continues to accelerate though, especially as technology improves further with the use of machine learning.”
Such advances have enabled the analysis of huge data sets that might not have been possible before, or would have taken much longer than is now the case. Although these advances can bring with them potential issues, “we have to face that there will be no turning back”, he says.
The key to forging a positive path forwards – both for science and scientists – is motivation, Cramer says. For most people, that comes from curiosity, he says. “It’s the enigma, it’s what keeps us going. We want to understand the world.”
5. Eva Nogales
Spanish-American Eva Nogales describes her pioneering work, involving gene transcription and the visualisation of what happens to atoms inside cells, in similar terms to those of the 2023 Shaw Prize laureates working in astronomy; inside every cell is a universe.
She says providing a window into that universe has helped others make huge strides in fields related, and seemingly unrelated as well. The biochemist has worked closely with those people focusing on genetic diseases, but also colleagues researching photosynthesis and biofuels. “The pandemic helped focus scientists’ efforts on a narrow part of biology, but it had other effects, too, such as limiting access to laboratories,” Nogales says.
Despite progression in this post-pandemic world, other limiting aspects of science and research, including inequality, also need to be overcome, she says. “Men typically don’t have to say, ‘Well, do I have a family, or do I have a career? Or, if I have a career and I want to have a family, what kind of compromises do I have to make?’.”
She says the next generation of scientists is also coming into the world with different expectations of their career and life balance, which has the potential to radically reshape the field. As that shift happens, technology is already changing the game, too. “AI might be the headline buzzword at the moment, but the molecular and cell biologist community has already seen a major alteration to the landscape through the use of CRISPR, a genome-editing tool,” she says.
6. Vladimir Drinfeld
Vladimir Drinfeld – who with Yau Shing-tung has shared the Shaw Prize in Mathematical Sciences for their work related to mathematical physics, and arithmetic geometry, differential geometry and Kahler geometry – says he fell in love with mathematics while spending time with his father, a professor of the subject.
They enjoyed long walks and holidays filled with discussions about mathematics, which has become his lifelong passion. “The way he taught the subject to me was pleasurable as a child – no stress,” Drinfeld says.
This passion has inspired him to win numerous prestigious international awards, including the Fields Medal, the Wolf Prize – and now the Shaw Prize.
7. Yau Shing-tung
Winning the 2023 Shaw Prize is like coming full circle for Yau Shing-tung, the Chinese academic who is currently chair professor and director of Yau Mathematical Sciences Center at Tsinghua University, in China.
“I grew up in Hong Kong and have seen a lot of films produced by Shaw Brothers Studio,” he says. “I also have been coming back to Hong Kong every year since 1991, for a few months at a time.
“I met the founder of the Shaw Prize, Sir Run Run Shaw, at Chinese University of Hong Kong, as Shaw College was established through his donations, and I have a close relationship with it. I also stayed in the dormitory of Shaw College and I met him on many occasions.”
Yau’s passion for mathematics is evident whenever it comes up in discussions. “Learning it was not a burden for me, it felt like a chess game – a challenge,” he says, stressing that the subject is one in which both Hong Kong and mainland China should continue to invest.
“Many parents in Hong Kong and mainland China think mathematics is not of much use, but that’s a misconception. There is nothing in today’s life that is not related to mathematics. Whether it’s the internet or the mobile phone, it’s basically about mathematics.”
Winning an award is not a true testament of success to Yau, but he believes in its impact to the masses. “The meaning of the prize is to give young people a goal, to see a pivotal phase of the pursuit of knowledge and to show them that society and the country see it as important,” he says. “Secondary and university students, and postgraduate students, will see that they will get respect for a job well done.”
The 2023 Shaw Prize award ceremony will take place in Hong Kong on November 12. To learn more about the Shaw Prize and the winners’ research discoveries, go to shawprize.org.