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Ewine van Dishoeck wins Kavli prize for astrophysics

How are stars and planets formed? Is life outside Earth possible? These questions are being researched by Professor of Molecular Astrophysics Ewine van Dishoeck at Leiden University. Her pioneering work has earned her the Kavli prize in the category of astrophysics. The prize consists of 1,000,000 dollars and a gold medal. The announcement was made today by the Norwegian Academy of Sciences and Arts.

Ewine Van Dishoeck makes a significant contribution, based on observations, theory and experiments, to the knowledge of so-called interstellar clouds, large gas and dust clouds that are the birthplace of planets and stars. She shows how molecules arise in these interstellar clouds that evolve further and clump together to form building blocks for complete planetary systems such as our own solar system. 

Van Dishoeck's research is highly important in determining whether life is possible on other planets. To assess the likelihood of extraterrestrial life, we first need to know which molecules are present in such a cloud, and how they react with one another. That way you can determine which organic compounds can occur on a planet under formation and whether life can be created from them. Van Dishoeck has also conducted research on another building block for life: water. She studies water reservoirs in the precursors of planetary systems and the water vapour around young stars. Her research generates information on the origin of water on Earth. 

Are we alone?

‘I'm still speechless after that unexpected telephone call from the President of the Norwegian Academy. What a fantastic honour, not only for me, but also for all my young researchers and colleagues spread throughout the world,' Van Dishoek commented. 'It is at least in part thanks to their creativity and hard work that our field is now in the Champions League of astronomy.' 

‘It is not only about pure science, but also about the fact that we can deliver a contribution to one of the biggest questions that mankind can ask: are we alone in the universe?' 

‘Her research has changed just about every aspect of astronomy'

The Kavli prize – that was first awarded in 2008 –  is always awarded to scientists who expand 'our understanding of existence'.  'Van Dishoeck's research has changed just about every apect of astronomy,' jury member Robert Kennicutt commented. ‘Her specialist field was at one time no more than a small research area on the periphery of astrophysics, but thanks to her it is now a core theme within the totality of astronomy.' 

Van Dishoeck has already won a number of important prizes and awards, including the Spinoza Prize, the top science prize in the Netherlands. She has also received an ERC Advanced Grant. In 2012 she was appointed as an Academy professor by the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences  (KNAW). Van Dishoeck is currently President Elect of the International Astronomical Union (IAU).

About the Kavli prize

The Kavli prize is awarded every two years by the Norwegian Academy of Sciences and Arts to winners in three categories: astrophysics, nanosciences and neurosciences. The winners in each category receive a financial award of a million dollars and a gold medal. The award ceremony will take place on 4 September in Oslo, where the prize will be presented by King Harald V of Norway.

Want to know more about Van Dishoeck?

You can get to know Van Dishoeck and her specialist research field in our research dossier on exploring the galaxy. If you would like to hear Van Dishoeck speak live, come to the Museum Night on Saturday 2 June, when she will be explaining how water occurred on Earth.

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