In a black-tie and gown extravaganza on Sunday night at NASA Ames Research Center’s glammed-up Hanger One, the $22 million Breakthrough Prizes were awarded to some of the world’s top physicists, biologists, and mathematicians.
Think Met Gala meets Doctor Who. In a heady celebrity/scientist cocktail, movie stars Morgan Freeman, Mila Kunis, Ashton Kutcher and others presented trophies to long-unheralded brainiacs, including Californians Peter Walter of UC San Francisco, plant geneticist Joanne Chory of San Diego’s Salk Institute for Biological Studies and cancer scientist Don W. Cleveland and mathematician James McKernan of UC San Diego, among others.
“It is an amazing recognition for our work, which is normally rather abstract,” said Walter, who studies how proteins within cells communicate with one another, fundamental to understanding how life organizes and functions. “What this prize does is put fundamental discoveries in the spotlight. It means a tremendous amount not just to me, but to the lab and the entire field.”
Scientists arrived in sleek limousines, then smiled stiffly as a phalanx of photographers waved and shouted, “Chin up!” Look left, please! Straight ahead, look straight ahead!”
The bravest ventured into the media huddle to explain how their discoveries could save our warming planet, transform how we conceive the cosmos or rock the world of math.
John Urschel, former offensive lineman with the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens and now a doctoral candidate in math at MIT, valiantly described combinatorial optimization to the starstruck but befuddled journalists. It’s just a way to seek optimal solutions to problems with a large but finite set of solutions, he said.
Then the scientists were escorted to the glittering grand event.
“My lab is going to be shocked to see me looking like this,” laughed Chory in a floor-length pink gown, who journeyed from San Diego to Orange County with her family to find just the right dress. “We don’t dress up much.”
She seeks to design a plant that can sequester carbon in the soil. Oh, and also feed the world.
What’s it like inside the hangar? It’s a secret. Journalists are banned after the red carpet. But because it is live-streamed, what we can tell you is this: There is an elegant dinner, they are called to the stage for their award, and there is entertainment by Wiz Khalifa and Nana Ou-Yang. They are tended to by a small army of publicists and scurrying wait staff.
It’s a self-consciously grand but cherished event, which since its inception in 2012 has awarded close to $200 million to honor critical research in the fields of fundamental physics, life sciences, and mathematics.
“I love to come to this,” said 2015 winner UC Berkeley biochemist Jennifer Doudna, in a sleek black dress and diamond earrings, who pioneered the gene editing tool CRISPR-Cas9.
The hope is to create a cultural shift — if scientists are treated like celebrities, they’ll win the attention of young people. The awards, conceived by theoretical physics dropout and entrepreneur Yuri Milner, are funded by Milner and his wife, Julia, and several Silicon Valley tech titans: Sergey Brin, of Google; Anne Wojcicki, of 23andMe; and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Dr. Priscilla Chan, a pediatrician at UC San Francisco.
Zuckerberg, away on vacation with his family, thanked the scientists via video: “It is because of you that we can image a world when all diseases are cured in our children’s lifetime and all of us can live to our full potential,” he said, in a blue hoodie. “We are making steady progress towards making a better future for all of us.”
Other guests included Spotify co-founder and CEO Daniel Elk, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, Udacity co-founder Sebastian Thrum, Miss USA 2017 Kara McCullough and George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic, a firm developing commercial space vehicles.
More than 11,000 entries from 178 countries were received in the 2017 installment of the global competition, which kicked off on Sept. 1.
The winners were chosen by a committee of the previous year’s winners.
A total of seven $3 million prizes were awarded. In addition, three $100,000 New Horizons in Physics Prizes were awarded to three early-career physicists, and three New Horizons in Mathematics Prizes totaling $300,000 were awarded to four early-career mathematicians. The Breakthrough Junior Challenge recognized one student with a $250,000 scholarship and provided an additional $150,000 in educational prizes for the winner’s science teacher and school.
Some scientists use the money to pay mortgages; others, to put kids through college. Some give their gifts to needy causes. UC Berkeley’s Doudna donated her $3 million to her alma mater Pomona College and UC Berkeley to support undergraduate students doing summer research.
News of his prize was startling and unexpected — like research, said UCSF’s Walter, 62, a Berlin native who lives in San Francisco with his family.
“In research, we are explorers,” he said. “We have no idea where we are going. It is unpredictable. And what we find can be very abstract and inaccessible to the average citizen.”
“So this is a wonderful way to put our work out there.”
The 2018 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences was awarded to Joanne Chory (Salk Institute for Biological Studies and Howard Hughes Medical Institute), Don W. Cleveland (Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research at University of California, San Diego), Kazutoshi Mori (Kyoto University), Kim Nasmyth (University of Oxford) and Peter Walter (University of California, San Francisco).
The 2018 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics was awarded to Charles L. Bennett (Johns Hopkins University), Gary Hinshaw (University of British Columbia), Norman Jarosik (Princeton University), Lyman Page Jr. (Princeton University), and David N. Spergel (Princeton University).
The 2018 Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics was be awarded to Christopher Hacon (University of Utah) and James McKernan (University of California, San Diego).