Michele Parrinello awarded the Marcel Benoist prize
December 6, 2011
This year’s Marcel Benoist Prize has gone to Michele Parrinello, a professor at ETH Zurich and Università della Svizzera italiana and former director of CSCS. Federal Councillor Didier Burkhalter presented Switzerland’s most important science award to him for his computer-aided modelling in the field of molecular dynamics.
December 6, 2011 - by Simone Ulmer, CSCS
The Marcel Benoist Prize, which was awarded to Michele Parrinello back in September (see ETH Life from 02.09.2011), was presented to the molecular scientist by Federal Councillor Didier Burkhalter at Università della Svizzera italiana on November 28th. In his speech to mark the award ceremony, Burkhalter compared Parrinello to Christopher Columbus: a world explorer. Unlike Columbus, however, Parrinello has a pretty good idea of where he is going to end up. The Federal Councillor repeatedly stressed the three virtues of science – freedom, responsibility and openness – which are more important today than ever. Switzerland is building upon these core values, which create fertile ground for research and upon which Parrinello’s research has also thrived.
In his congratulatory speech, Physics Nobelist Heinrich Rohrer not only lauded the prize winner, but also the Committee for its selection. He is happy that Parrinello has chosen Switzerland as his research home. He rounded off his critical speech with a comment on Parrinello's laudable independence from monetary constraints, which all too often preclude the most worthy scientific paths, saying that he is getting paid for what he is doing rather than doing what he is paid for. Rohrer made clear to the audience that he doesn’t think much of today’s notions of being more cost-effective and acting more competitively in science.
“I am delighted with this accolade and feel honoured,” says Michele Parrinello in response to receiving the award. “Most of all because I have received a prize here in Switzerland, a country I cherish tremendously and where I have already been working for over twenty years.” In his speech, during which he highlighted the impact of his work on researching influenza vaccines or efficient lithium batteries, he echoed Rohrer’s sentiments: he solely showed simulations of molecules and processes that other research groups had carried out; simulations, however, which are based upon his research results. After all, Rohrer is of the opinion that it is not the prizes you receive for your research that count, but rather what other scientists do with it.
Together with Roberto Car, Parrinello developed a method over twenty-five years ago that made it possible to simulate the behaviour of a silicon crystal dynamically for the first time. The Car-Parrinello Molecular Dynamics (CPMD) code helped to make a breakthrough in the simulation of molecular processes (see ETH Life from 07.10.2010). Parrinello has already received numerous awards for it.
ETH-Zurich President Ralph Eichler emphasised the importance of the research field Parrinello was awarded the prize for: “Through increasingly more powerful computers like those at the CSCS, molecular processes in chemistry and biology, for instance, can be simulated increasingly more effectively and sometimes even replace expensive experiments. The prize awarded to Professor Parrinello acknowledges his contributions and demonstrates the growing importance of the computer-aided sciences."
The Physicists' Coup
Piero Martinoli, the President of USI, again described Parrinello as a “gentleman of science”. “I admire Michele Parrinello greatly as a scientist and respect him deeply as a person. As the numerous international accolades and the academic awards attest, Michele Parrinello is one of the world’s leading scientists in the field of computer science today.” According to Martinoli, for USI, which set a priority in this field a few years ago, the presence of Parrinello is a unique opportunity to give fresh impetus and draw attention to the computer sciences. Martinoli stressed that a promising cooperation arose through Parrinello’s dual professorship at ETH Zurich and USI and the close collaboration with CSCS (the Swiss National Supercomputing Centre). With a wink, he noted that they are all physicists behind this success – the USI President Piero Martinoli himself, ETH-Zurich President Ralph Eichler, CSCS Director Thomas Schulthess and this year’s Marcel-Benoist-Prize winner Michele Parrinello.
The Prize Winner
Born in Italy in 1945, Michele Parrinello began his scientific career as a full professor at the SISSA in Trieste before moving to the IBM research lab in Rüschlikon and subsequently becoming the Director of the Max Planck Institute for Solid State Research in Stuttgart. The Sicilian scientist has been a Professor of Computational Science at ETH Zurich since 2001 and was Director of CSCS in Manno until 2003. Today, he holds a dual professorship at USI and ETH Zurich