The BBVA Foundation awarded three MIT professors Frontiers of Knowledge Awards for their work in climate change, biology and biomedicine, and quantum computation. Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences Professor Kerry A. Emanuel, Department of Biology Professor David Sabatini, and Department of Mathematics Professor Peter Shor were recognized in the 12th edition of this annual award.
Emanuel, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Atmospheric Science, earned the BBVA’s Climate Change award “for his fundamental contributions to the understanding of tropical cyclones and how they are affected by climate change,” according to the committee’s citation. “By understanding the essential physics of atmospheric convection … he has unraveled the behavior of tropical cyclones — hurricanes and typhoons — as our climate changes.” He was also lauded for “extraordinary effectiveness in communicating the science of climate change to the public and policymakers.”
Emanuel is the co-founder (with Daniel H. Rothman) and co-director of the MIT Lorenz Center, a climate think tank that fosters creative approaches to learning how climate works. He was the first to link greater hurricane intensity to climate change-induced warming of sea surface waters.
“It is hard to imagine an area of climate science where one person’s leadership is so incontestable,” says Bjorn Stevens, BBVA Foundation committee chairman and director of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology.
Hurricanes have long been known as destructive natural events, but the underlying physics of them was still largely unknown. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, after completing degrees at MIT and later joining the EAPS faculty, Emanuel pinned down the mechanisms behind hurricanes. In his research detailing how warming surface oceans fuel storms and increase the intensity, he called them “massive, natural machines that convert the heat they extract from the ocean into wind energy.”
A changing climate will see more powerful hurricanes. Emanuel warns that this will complicate the already-tough task of making accurate forecasts, and predicts that hurricanes will spread into more regions of the planet.
His models currently predict a 5 percent increase in hurricane intensity (i.e., wind speed) for each 1-degree rise in ocean temperatures. “Three degrees of warming would make hurricanes 15 percent more intense, but their destructive potential would actually triple; in other words, with this 15 percent increase in wind speed, the damage would increase by around 45 percent,” says Emanuel, the author of "Divine Wind: The History and Science of Hurricanes" (Oxford Unviersity Press, 2005) and "What We Know about Climate Change" (MIT Press, 2018).
“Today’s most intense hurricanes may have a wind speed at the surface of 85 meters per second, but by the end of this century, unless we curb greenhouse gas emissions, we could start to see speeds of up to 90-92 meters per second. A hurricane’s destructive potential is determined by its wind speed, so in fact, the destructiveness of these storms for human populations would be considerably greater.”
Emanuel says that the international community “is not doing nearly enough” to combat climate change. “We need to stop listening to the voices of denial, and instead listen to our own children, who are crying out for us to act.”
Sabatini, an MIT professor of biology and member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research and the Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research, shares his Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Biology and Biomedicine with Michael Hall of the University of Basel, for the discovery of a protein kinase that regulates cellular metabolism and growth.
Their discovery of mTOR is used in the study of a wide array of health conditions, including obesity, aging, cancer, diabetes, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s. “Research has suggested that 60 percent of cancers have some mechanism for turning on the mTOR pathway,” Sabatini says. “I could never have imagined the implications of that first discovery.”
Sabatini began his PhD thesis on understanding the mechanism of action of rapamycin, a natural anti-fungal agent proved to have immunosuppressive and anti-cancer properties. It is used to prevent organ rejection in transplant patients.
The two scientists arrived at their findings independently. Hall discovered the target of rapamycin (TOR) protein in yeast cells in 1993 during his time as a senior investigator; Sabatini isolated it in mammals while still a doctoral student, in 1994, and gave it the name mTOR.
In mammalian cells, mTOR — which stands for “mechanistic target of rapamycin,” an immunosuppressant drug that inhibits cell growth — is the keystone molecule in a pathway that regulates cellular metabolic processes in response to nutrients.
Sabatini explains that “mTOR is a switch that turns on in the presence of nutrients, so the body can build material, and when there are no nutrients available it breaks the material down.” The on/off switch of the mTOR switch controls a cascade of hundreds of molecular signals, many of which are still unknown to science.
“The molecular mechanisms that regulate the growth of organisms and coordinate it with the availability of nutrients were unknown until two decades ago,” said the committee.
After the molecule was isolated in yeast and mammals, both researchers began the task of unraveling its multiple organismal functions. Sabatini’s lab has since identified most of the components of the mTOR pathway and shown how they contribute to the function of cells and organisms. His discoveries have opened avenues for identifying disease vulnerabilities and treatment targets for diverse conditions — notably including key metabolic vulnerabilities in pancreatic and ovarian cancer cells and neurodevelopmental defects. He is currently working to exploit those vulnerabilities as targets for new therapies.
Rapamycin is used as an immunosuppressant to prevent rejection of transplanted organs and as an anti-cancer agent. In the treatment of cardiovascular diseases, it is used as a coating for coronary stents to stop new blockages forming in the bloodstream.
Because mTOR is a nutrient sensor, additional research points to caloric restriction for increasing longevity. TOR was the first known protein that influences longevity in all of the four species that scientists commonly use to study aging: yeast, worms, flies, and mice. “We are just scratching the surface” of possible mTOR applications, he says. “I don’t know if it will help us live to be 120, but I think it will have beneficial effects on different physiological systems, and I am practically sure that it will ameliorate aspects of aging-related diseases.”
Shor, the Morss Professor of Applied Mathematics, was recognized in the Basic Sciences category for his role in the development of quantum computation and cryptology. He shares this award with IBM Research’s chemical physicist Charles H. Bennett and University of Montreal computer scientist Gilles Brassard.
The award committee remarked on the leap forward in quantum technologies, an advance that draws heavily on the new laureates’ pioneering contributions. The committee stated that their work “spans multiple disciplines and brings together concepts from mathematics, physics, and computer science. Their ideas are playing a key role in the development of quantum technologies for communication and computation.”
Bennett and Brassard invented quantum cryptography in the 1980s to ensure the physical inviolability of data communications. The importance of this work became apparent 10 years later when Shor discovered that a hypothetical quantum computer would render effectively useless the conventional cryptography systems underpinning the privacy and security of today’s internet communications.
Bennett and Brassard’s BB84 protocol — generally acknowledged as the first practical application of the science of quantum information — underpins the security of all our internet communications and transactions, and is based on the existence of mathematical problems that computers cannot solve. Until, as the citation states, “Shor discovered that quantum computers could factorize integers much faster than any supercomputer, therefore compromising the security of conventional cryptographic schemes.”
Says Brassard, “The importance of our work became much more evident after Shor destroyed everything else.” Shor’s Algorithm is now one of the quantum algorithms that comprise the fast-developing language to be spoken by tomorrow’s quantum computers.
Another of Shor’s contributions is an algorithm used to correct quantum computer errors, “an essential requirement for enabling and scaling quantum computations,” the committee wrote.
Quantum computers are exposed to a large volume of noise, causing numerous errors. “Everyone thought that you couldn’t correct errors on quantum computers,” recalls Shor, “because as soon as you try to measure a quantum system you disturb it. In other words, if you try to measure the error so as to correct it, you disturb it and computation is interrupted. My algorithm showed that you can isolate and fix the error and still preserve the computation.”
Quantum cryptography is one of the most advanced branches of quantum technology, which the laureates view as a long-term prospect. “It will be five or 10 years before a quantum computer can do anything approaching useful,” says Shor. With time, however, he is convinced that these machines will deliver revolutionary applications. For example, in biomedicine, “it takes enormous amounts of computer time to simulate the behavior of molecules,” he says. “But quantum computers could achieve that, and help design new drugs.”
The BBVA Foundation promotes knowledge based on research and artistic and cultural creation, and supports activity on the analysis of emerging issues in five strategic areas: environment, biomedicine and health, economy and society, basic sciences and technology, and culture. The Frontiers of Knowledge Awards, spanning eight prize categories, recognize research and creative work of excellence as embedded in theoretical advances, technological developments, or innovative artistic works and styles, as well as fundamental contributions in addressing key challenges of the 21st century.
Since its launch in 2009, the BBVA also has given awards to MIT’s Susan Solomon for climate change; Marvin Minsky, Adi Shamir, Silvio Micali, Shafi Goldwasser, and Ronald Rivest for information and computer technologies; Stephen Buchwald for basic sciences; Edward Boyden for biology and biomedicine; and Daron Acemoglu for economics.