The Frontiers Awards honor the experts who changed the world by facing loneliness

The unknown scares and excites, and humans and their societies navigate between these two emotions. Most, conservative, prefer to stay in the familiar environment, but often end up swept away by those few adventurers who feel the call of the frontier. Over time, when it succeeds, the revolutionary option becomes something that the new generations want to keep, and those who bet on excitement receive honors, also from the skittish ones.

This afternoon, the BBVA Foundation awarded prizes at the Euskalduna Palace in Bilbao to those responsible for a few revolutions that are already part of the unquestionable human heritage. The 14 winners of the fourth edition of the Frontiers of Knowledge Awards responded gratefully, but did not forget to claim the loneliness of the pioneers. Robert Langer, awarded in the Biology and Medicine category for creating the nanoparticles that made coronavirus vaccines viable, recalled that many scientists criticized his solution as “impossible.” Langer, co-founder of Moderna, one of the companies producing the vaccines that stopped the pandemic, also did not forget that when they began “to develop vaccines to treat covid-19, the [diario] bostonglobe published a front-page story titled ‘That’s Not How Science Is Done’” with a photo of himself below. Langer shared the €400,000 prize with Drew Weissman and Katalin Karikó of the University of Pennsylvania, who also made critical contributions to the use of messenger RNA in drugs for cancer, vaccines and autoimmune diseases.

The true innovators, those who work on the frontiers of knowledge, are always alone and it is likely that claiming their solitude is also an act of communion with the authors of the revolutions of the past and of support for those who will lead those of the future. Karikó usually shows her a letter from the pharmaceutical company Merck & Co (MSD) rejecting her request for $10,000 to finance her research, a warning to the timid of the future and an incentive for the brave of the present. In her speech during the ceremony, co-chaired by the president of the BBVA Foundation, Carlos Torres Vila, and the president of the CSIC, Rosa Menéndez, the Hungarian researcher recalled her predecessors: “This award also recognizes fellow scientists who worked diligently during decades and helped build the foundation of our work.”

Since its inception 15 years ago, the crucial objective of the Frontiers of Knowledge Awards is to promote “rigorous and validated knowledge” as “the best compass and the best instrument we have to understand the world and ourselves”, and, therefore, therefore, “to face the great challenges of our time”, stated the president of the BBVA Foundation in a speech at the end of the event. In the opinion of Torres Vila, the vaccines against covid 19 have shown that, in the face of great challenges, the key to success is “the knowledge generated thanks to international collaboration”. In the future, he has assured, that collaboration will be necessary to face “the severity of climate change and the loss of biodiversity, both probably among the greatest disruptions in history”.

Ambition and audacity are necessary traits in explorers, but the experience and accumulated knowledge of recent decades has shown that the fearful also have their reasons when they want to bridle those who never see limits. The Climate Change category and the Ecology and Conservation Biology category are dedicated to scientists seeking to understand the complex relationships behind the balance that made our planet habitable and that is now in danger. In the first of them, the winners were Lonnie and Ellen Thompson, a couple of researchers who since 1974 have carried out 64 expeditions to the tops of the highest mountains in the world to recover the history contained in the ice cores preserved in glaciers. In those blocks of ice there are thousands of years of climatic information, of precipitations or volcanic eruptions, which help to reconstruct the climate of the past.

In his speech, Lonnie Thompson recalled that, thanks to the information accumulated in his ice bars, as early as 1992 he and his wife testified “before the United States Senate about the reality of extreme climate change that has been documented in remote areas of the world”. “Since then, the scientific literature on climate change and projected impacts has continued to accumulate, but unfortunately, the inhabitants of the Earth and their governments have done little to slow the accelerating rise in atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases. greenhouse”, he stated, claiming like his colleagues the loneliness of the pioneers, in front of an audience that also included the Lehendakari, Íñigo Urkullu, and the Mayor of Bilbao, Juan Mari Aburto. Thompson, however, was optimistic about the human capacity to become aware and seek social, scientific and technological solutions to “an existential problem” of humanity.

An “existential threat”

Simon Levin, awarded in the Ecology and Conservation Biology category together with Lenore Fahrig, and Steward Pickett, also made a speech in which he warned of the dangers of unleashed human expansion. This mathematician, responsible for introducing the dimension of physical space, territory and its different scales and interrelationships into the study of ecosystems, also spoke of another “existential threat”, in this case the loss of biodiversity. Its models can be a basis for understanding the relationships between natural and human systems and creating policies that make their coexistence possible. “The variety of habitats and biomes that exist in the world, the spread of invasive species and infectious diseases, the design of nature reserves and the mobility of species, including ours, are all factors that highlight the need to develop approaches that fully take into account the spatial dimensions of population dynamics, species interactions, and nutrient flows,” Levin explained.

In a world of such complexity, machines can be a support in trying to make sense of it, and Judea Pearl, awarded in Information and Communication Technologies for his pioneering contributions to Artificial Intelligence, is one of the people who have contributed the most to the development of machines capable of solving problems as we humans do. But also, as she explained in her speech, trying to make artificial intelligences solve previously impossible problems has allowed her to get to know natural intelligences a little better. “Driving a car, crossing a street or going to a doctor: we do all of this [los humanos] in the middle of an ocean of noise and uncertainty and, interestingly enough, you and I managed to navigate that ocean quite well, with surprising comfort and great dexterity,” said Pearl. However, all these tasks are very difficult for a robot. “By asking ourselves ‘how would a machine do it?’ we get an idea of ​​how we do it, because machines are like flexible laboratories to test different theories of human thought and see which of them performs as well as we do… In fact, research in Artificial Intelligence has revealed some basic secrets of the reasoning”, said the researcher from the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), who also recalled that his initial investigations “were received with skepticism”.

Frequently, when science is brought to the public, its practical applications are emphasized, somewhat betraying its fundamental nature as the best method to satisfy the innate human attraction to the unknown. That devotion to knowledge for knowledge’s sake, which according to the director of the BBVA Foundation, Rafael Pardo, is the fundamental inspiration for the Fronteras awards, is best reflected in the Basic Sciences category. The French mathematician, Jean François Le Gall, received him together with Charles Fefferman, absent for health reasons, from whom he highlighted his contributions to the understanding of “phenomena in two dimensions, such as the elaboration of precise maps, the flow of water over a flat surface or the electric field in two-dimensional materials”. The mathematician, who in an interview in the morning recognized that the main thrust of his research “is mainly aesthetic”, also thanked the recognition of a country like Spain that, saving the usual topics, considers that it has much more respect for mathematicians than your own country. “That’s how I’ve lived it at least,” he said.

At the end of the ceremony, two economists from Stanford University (USA), Matthew Jackson and Mark Granovetter, also took part, awarded in the categories of Economics, Finance and Business Management, and in the Social Sciences category, respectively. Both have highlighted the relevance of personal and group relationships that individuals, companies and institutions have and their social and economic performance, in areas as relevant and diverse as professional career, income level, or financial dependence. “Economics has traditionally ignored the fact that most economic interactions are—to borrow a term from my colleague Mark Granovetter—embedded in social environments,” Jackson said.

The economist offered an archetypal example of the importance of social relations in the economic situation of each individual. “If a person who is unemployed has their social networks (family, friends and acquaintances) in the same situation, it will be much more difficult for them to find work than if they were employed.” For this reason, he believes that a change in the mechanisms is necessary to reduce inequalities. “The redistribution of wealth and income only addresses the symptoms of inequality, and not its root causes. It helps us see the need for policies that enrich people’s networks and provide information and opportunities that their networks do not provide,” he said. “This perspective explains why inequality is so persistent and why immobility and inequality go hand in hand,” he concludes.

Lastly, in the category of Music and Opera, which, originally, the Frontiers of Knowledge awards place on an equal footing with other areas of scientific knowledge, the award goes to the American composer Philip Glass. In his speech, Glass has recounted how when he started writing music he realized that some of the skills he used to create were the same ones he needed when he studied physics or mathematics. “I discovered that almost everything he did could be expressed through music,” he has said. The relationship between art and science is natural for the composer, who has dedicated works to figures such as Einstein, Galileo, Kepler or Stephen Hawking. These personalities “were very radical in their way of life and changed the world in which they lived,” he said, before concluding with what could be a manifesto for all creative minds, those who, even risking loneliness, accepted the dangers of heading into the unknown: “The joy of creating brings enormous satisfaction, it’s what makes me wake up in the morning. There should be some sort of compromise to bring some joy to the world, and hopefully to oneself as well.”

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