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Franklin would be proud

A couple who collect ice at the world's edges. The developer of super telescopes. These are among nine 2012 winners of the Franklin Institute Awards.

Lonnie Thompson, right and his wife and research partner Ellen Mosley-Thompson stand in the "cold room," where ice cores are stored in the minus-30-degree freezer at Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State University Friday, Dec. 21, 2007 in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)
Lonnie Thompson, right and his wife and research partner Ellen Mosley-Thompson stand in the "cold room," where ice cores are stored in the minus-30-degree freezer at Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State University Friday, Dec. 21, 2007 in Columbus, Ohio. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)Read moreASSOCIATED PRESS

Lonnie Thompson routinely scales the world's highest peaks, in the Himalayas, the Andes and beyond, notwithstanding his chronic asthma and 63 years of age. His wife, Ellen Mosley-Thompson, treks through the forbidding expanses of Greenland and Antarctica.

But the real exploration comes only after they get back to the laboratory at Ohio State University.

The two researchers bring back long cylinders of ice they've extracted from these remote locales, analyzing them to monitor the Earth's changing climate. For their pioneering work, the husband-and-wife team are among the 2012 winners of prestigious awards given annually by the Franklin Institute.

The nine winners, to be announced Monday, range from a physicist who developed giant telescopes that reveal the early days of the universe to a chemist who discovered powerful particles known as quantum dots, which are expected to change how the world uses energy. The group is to be honored at a black-tie affair in April during Philadelphia's second annual science festival.

The awards have been given since 1824 in various fields of science, engineering and technology, with past recipients including Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein and Marie and Pierre Curie. Each year there is one recipient from the world of business, which this year is John T. Chambers, chief executive officer of Cisco Systems Inc.

Surely few recipients in the awards' history have logged so many miles as the Thompsons, who have drilled for ice samples in a dozen countries between them since 1974.

Lonnie Thompson has been on 58 trips, primarily to high-altitude glaciers near the equator, while his wife has made 16, mostly in the polar regions - a split arrangement that has allowed them to cover more ground and, in the early years, provided flexibility in raising their daughter.

Together they have provided critical evidence that human activity is warming the planet, through analysis of the molecular signals frozen in the ice.

Though that conclusion has long been widely accepted among the scientific community, it remains controversial in political circles. So in recent years, the Thompsons have ventured outside the lab, speaking at public forums to make sure their science is heard by officials and citizens.

Ellen Mosley-Thompson sees the contrast between the skepticism expressed by some in the United States and the views of the native porters who help carry ice cores down from the tops of dwindling glaciers.

"The people living there don't have to be convinced about global climate change," Mosley-Thompson said. "They see it all the time. They understand the importance."

Richard Alley, a prominent climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University, characterized the pair's work as "spectacular."

Though there are larger collections of ice cores in the world, the thousands of samples that the Thompsons have stored in freezers at Ohio State are unique in their geographic diversity, providing a comprehensive picture of global change, Alley said.

Many come from places that no other climate scientists have visited, in difficult locales that challenge even professional climbers.

"Some of the places that Lonnie has drilled, there are people that go there as mountaineers, and their goal is just to summit the peak," Alley said, chuckling. "And here comes Lonnie walking down the mountain with an ice core."

The logistics of getting the ice back to Ohio are daunting. From Antarctica, the cores are put on a Twin Otter plane for the first leg of their journey, after which they are loaded onto ships in freezer containers.

In the highlands of Asia, on the other hand, the team relies on local porters and even yaks for the mountainous stages of the journey.

While the Thompsons can study the climate from many thousands of years ago, another of this year's award winners peers back in time even further - with telescopes.

Jerry Nelson, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, came up with the innovation that allowed the construction of what were long the world's largest telescopes - each measuring 10 meters across.

Rather than build a mirror from a single piece of glass, which would be impractically heavy and expensive at that size, Nelson decided to assemble it with dozens of thinner, segmented mirrors.

The resulting Keck telescopes were built on the 13,796-foot summit of Mauna Kea, in Hawaii, allowing researchers to gather light from stars that are distant both in space and time.

Edward Sion, a Villanova University professor of astronomy and astrophysics, said the high resolution of these scopes is unmatched. If the Earth were flat, they would allow someone to distinguish points of light at a great distance.

"It would be like someone standing in L.A. and seeing a pair of headlights in New York," Sion said.

The Keck Observatory scopes also are used to capture the light emitted by stars billions of years ago. They played a key role in the work that won this year's Nobel Prize in physics, when scientists showed that the expansion of the universe is accelerating.

Nelson is now at work designing an even larger telescope, which, at 30 meters in diameter, would have nine times the area of one of the Kecks.

Among the new Franklin award winners, the work that may have the biggest application in everyday life was done by chemist Louis Brus, now of Columbia University.

While at Bell Labs, the famed research powerhouse that once was part of AT&T, Brus invented semiconductor nanocrystals that later became known as colloidal quantum dots - tiny particles that emit light when excited by energy.

Chris Murray, a professor of chemistry and materials science and engineering at the University of Pennsylvania, said the full potential of this discovery, made in the early 1980s, is only just starting to flower.

In the life sciences community, researchers are exploring ways that the tiny dots can be used in medical imaging. And because the dots can absorb light and re-emit it at a different wavelength, they can be used in such applications as computer screens and the creation of warmer-looking LED lights, which now are sometimes faulted for their bluish tint.

Finally, numerous start-up companies are exploring how the dots could be used to make high-efficiency solar panels.

"It has blossomed into exciting work in thousands of labs around the world," Murray said.

Franklin Institute Awards

The Franklin Institute is giving its annual awards to nine recipients in April:

Bower Award for Business Leadership: John T. Chambers, Cisco Systems Inc.

Bower Award and Prize for Achievement in Science: Louis E. Brus, Columbia University

Earth and environmental science: Lonnie G. Thompson and Ellen Stone Mosley-Thompson, Ohio State University

Computer and cognitive science: Vladimir Vapnik, NEC Laboratories

Electrical engineering: Jerry Nelson, University of California, Santa Cruz

Life science: Sean B. Carroll, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Mechanical engineering: Zvi Hashin, Tel Aviv University

Physics: Rashid Sunyaev, Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics, Germany

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