Industrialist Gives $100M to Solve Science's Biggest Questions

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Tiny Doctors

Three of the Kavli Institutes—at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena; Cornell University in Ithaca, New York; and Delft University of Technology in Holland—are devoted to nanoscience, which operates on a scale of atoms and molecules. (To understand the miniscule scale of this science, consider this: The average thickness of a human hair is 50,000 nanometers.)

Nanoscience is still in its infancy, and Kavli believes it will take many years until its true benefits begin to emerge. Its potential, however, is endless, especially in medicine.

Some scientists predict a future where tiny bio-molecular computers may be able to work as "doctors" inside a human cell, releasing drugs or repairing damaged and unhealthy tissue.

Nanoscience could dramatically enhance computer power, allowing for computers to make quantum memories that could eventually outdo the human brain. That may sound like a scary prospect to some people, but not to Kavli.

"It doesn't worry me," he said. "We've always heard the argument that the machines will take over. I have the confidence and belief that we will be able to control the technology. Will we create a monster that we can't control? I don't think it's ever going to happen."

Incredible Brain

While the immediate benefits of nanoscience are yet to be determined, advancements in the area of neuroscience have already led to breakthroughs in medical treatments for physical and mental disorders. Such discoveries have helped researchers better understand learning impairments and emotional trauma.

Led by Nobel laureate Eric Kandel, the Kavli Institute at Columbia University in New York City will study how signaling in neural circuits controls behavior. Scientists at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, will focus on the cerebral cortex. At the University of California San Diego, researchers will, among other things, study the origin and evolution of human cognition.

"The brain is the most complex of all the things we deal with," Kavli said. "It's amazing. Our ability to remember something that happened 50 years ago is an incredible feat."

Kavli hopes that the mission's broad scope will help unify the sciences. Funding is unrestricted, and institutes are encouraged to cross over into other fields of research.

"Science, like business, is built brick by brick," Kavli said. "You learn more and more. In the end you have built a whole."

Infinite Universe

The three institutes involved in cosmology—at the University of California Santa Barbara; Stanford University in Palo Alto, California; and the University of Chicago—will explore everything from dark energy and dark matter to theoretical physics, such as string theory.

"The universe is big beyond imagination, yet composed of particles so small they're beyond our comprehension," Kavli said. "There may be different universes or perhaps an infinite number of universes. Who knows?"

Kavli, who has two adopted children from an earlier marriage, doesn't consider himself a particularly spiritual man. But he sees no contradiction between religion and science.

"They're perfectly compatible in my mind," he said.

He believes scientists will one day arrive at a unified theory that explains the nature of the universe.

"I think it's going to be something reasonably simple," he said. "And we will say, Why didn't we think of that before?"

For more science news, scroll down.

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