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Popular Science announces Third Annual 'Brilliant 10'

Top young scientists poised to change the world

Popular Science

New York, NY, September 14, 2004--Popular Science magazine names its third annual "Brilliant 10" today, a list of ten young scientists to watch. All are extraordinary thinkers who are gaining recognition in their fields, yet remain virtually unknown to the general public. The article appears in the October issue of Popular Science, on newsstands today.

"Brilliant 10 is our way of bringing some of the brightest, most promising minds in science to a mainstream audience," said Mark Jannot, Editor in Chief of Popular Science. "This is a group of ten people largely unfamiliar to most, but their work will change our lives."

The Third Annual Popular Science "Brilliant 10," in alphabetical order, are:

  • Robin Canup, 35, Southwest Research Institute (Boulder, CO) for her work in the field of planetary science. Ever since the Apollo missions, astronomers suspected that the moon originated from bits of the Earth that were knocked off in a collision, but they didn't know how the collision occurred. Canup created computer simulations showing that the hypothesis makes sense over a wide range of scenarios and explains some of what we know about the moon and Earth today. Someday, her simulations may predict which planets outside our solar system contain moons like ours.

  • Maria Chudnovsky, 27, Princeton University, (Princeton, NJ) for her work in the field of mathematics. Maria Chudnovsky wants to understand the world completely. Why do storm clouds appear before it rains? Why do we catch cold? What's really wrong with her car? Most of the time she's frustrated, but she takes comfort in the abstract realm of mathematics, where all facts stem from provable universal laws. Her single-mindedness helped prove the perfect-graph conjecture, a hypothesis that stumped generations of her predecessors.

  • Kurt Cuffey, 34, University of California, Berkeley, for his work in the field of glaciology. Cuffey is helping to reframe the debate about global warming and the speed at which it can happen. He spends two months a year in Antarctica, using high-resolution GPS receivers to measure ice-flow rates and collecting humidity and wind records. The data is fodder for numerical models he uses to interpret past climate changes and predict future ones. His research reveals an Earth where ice sheets can melt more--raising sea levels faster--than anyone previously imagined.

  • Brian Enquist, 35, University of Arizona (Tucson, AZ) for his work in the field of evolutionary ecology. Brian Enquist talks about the natural world as if it were a wind-up clock: "If you take it apart, it's very complex, but there are some very simple principles that make it work." And like a master watchmaker, he is looking for a set of universal laws that describe the rhythms of plant and animal life. The principles that he and his colleagues are discovering appear to reveal deep biological truths about everything from the way cells consume nutrients to the growth rates of trees to how deforestation could affect global levels of carbon dioxide.

  • Claire Gmachl, 37, Princeton University (Princeton, NJ) for her work in the field of laser physics. Once perfected, Gmachl's tiny, ingenious devices--quantum-cascade lasers--could serve as an early-warning system for terrorism. By designing lasers that emit multiple frequencies, Gmachl made it possible for a single instrument to detect many different chemicals. Shine one of her lasers across a highway to a sensor on the other side, and you could create a detection system for noxious car emissions; installed in an airport walkway, such a laser could sense trace amounts of explosives.

  • Henrik Jensen, 34, University of California, San Diego for his work in the field of computer graphics. Surfaces don't just reflect light, Henrik Jensen realized, they absorb it, and by looking closely at materials--be it a glass of milk or a marble slab--he learned how light makes something happen beneath the surface of everything. His ability to translate the play of light on surfaces into digital code has not only secured his status as an academic computer scientist, it has taken him on a red carpet ride, earning him credits on films such as Terminator 3 and Shrek 2. In February, he earned an Academy Award for Technical Achievement.

  • David Liu, 31, Harvard University (Boston, MA) for his work in the field of DNA-based chemistry. Within two years of becoming a Harvard professor, Liu developed a brand-new way to create man made chemical molecules, relying on the natural tendency of DNA strands to pair together like a zipper. Capitalizing on this, Liu is able to program the outcome of chemical reactions--before combining his raw materials, he attached each to a strand of DNA, attaching the ingredients he wants to react to complementary bits of DNA. For now, the process lets chemists produce known molecules with greater control. Down the line, it could be used to search for new medicines.

  • Sheila Patek, 31, University of California, Berkeley for her work in the field of biomechanics. Why would a biologist spend her days battling crustaceans? Because from them she gets insight into the physics of animal movement. Patek has parsed the mechanics of the odd antenna twitches that lobsters use to make noise and is helping develop a physiology-based method to predict what each lobster species would sound like. Recently, she proved that the peacock mantis shrimp has the fastest kick in the animal kingdom.

  • Karel Svoboda, 38, Cold Spring Harbor Lab (Cold Spring Harbor, NY) for his work in the field of neuroscience. When we make a new memory, where is it stored in our brains? The question consumed Svoboda for years, until he pioneered a method for observing a single brain cell in a living creature over time. By creating a microscope powerful enough to image a synapse--one-billionth the size of a grain of rice--he witnessed mouse neurons sprouting new branches in response to unfamiliar tasks, and saw new synapses appear. Svoboda's work contradicted the mainstream view that neural circuitry is fixed after childhood and may lead to methods of repairing the memory-formation system in Alzheimer's patients and others.

  • James Walker, 40, Southwest Research Institute (San Antonio, TX) for his work in the field of impact physics. In Isaac Newton's theoretical universe, colliding objects retain their shape, like two billiard balls. In the real world, things don't always happen so neatly. Superfast bullets crumple on impact, and ceramic-based body armor dents or shatters in a variety of ways. Computing the forces involved is so complex that until 1995, when Walker and his partner published a paper describing how a bullet penetrates armor, nobody ever bothered to do the math. Today, Walker is creating models to demonstrate how ceramics shatter. He also worked with NASA in the aftermath of the Columbia disaster, and the agency is awaiting his findings before recertifying the shuttle for flight.


    Editors of Popular Science conducted a methodical search for the third annual Brilliant 10, reaching out to university department heads, academic think tanks, and award-giving organizations to select this year's winners. For more information about the Brilliant 10, or to request photos or interviews, contact Hallie Deaktor, 212.799.5172, or

    Popular Science® is published by Time4 Media®, the world's leading publisher of leisure-time magazines. Founded in 1872, PopSci is the world's largest science and technology magazine, with a circulation of 1.45 million subscribers and a readership of more than seven million people. Time4 Media® is a subsidiary of Time Inc., which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Time Warner Inc. (NYSE: TWX).

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