Breakthrough Prizes

The star-studded Breakthrough Prize Awards ceremony awarded $22 million on Sunday night to prizewinning scientists in the fields of Physics, Math and Life Sciences. (Photo Credit: E.N.)

The star-studded Breakthrough Prize Awards ceremony awarded $22 million on Sunday night to scientists in the fields of Physics, Math and Life Sciences.

Held annually at NASA’s Ames Research Center, the ceremony was billed as the Oscars for Science in its 6th year. The prizes come from the considerable backing of the prize’s founders – including the likes of Sergey Brin (Google), Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), Yuri and Julia Milner, and Anne Wojcicki (23andMe). Regular readers will recognise many of those names as Silicon Valley tech royalty. They set up the prize with the admirable goal of turning scientists into rock stars, and firmly root them and their work in public consciousness.

“Science is a way of thinking… powerful, but fragile.”

“Science is not merely a topic in a textbook,” opened the evening’s host, Morgan Freeman. “Science is a way of thinking…powerful, but fragile.”

There were five winners in the Life Science category, with each winner picking up a check for $3 million.

Don Cleveland, University of California San Diego.

For elucidating the molecular pathogenesis of a type of inherited ALS, including the role of glia in neurodegeneration, and for establishing antisense oligonucleotide therapy in animal models of ALS and Huntington disease.

Joanne Chory, Salk Institute for Biological Studies & Howard Hughes Medical Institute

For discovering the molecular mechanisms by which plants extract information from light and shade to modify their programs of shoot and leaf growth in the photosynthetic harvest of light.

Kim Nasmyth, University of Oxford

For elucidating the sophisticated mechanism that mediates the perilous separation of duplicated chromosomes during cell division and thereby prevents genetic diseases such as cancer.

Peter Walter, UC San Francisco

For elucidating the unfolded protein response, a cellular quality-control system that detects disease-causing unfolded proteins and directs cells to take corrective measures.

Kazutoshi Mori, Kyoto University

Also, for elucidating the unfolded protein response, a cellular quality-control system that detects disease-causing unfolded proteins and directs cells to take corrective measures.

Speaking on the prizes themselves, recipients respond with a range of pride, purpose, and bewilderment.  “It’s a wonderful bonus, but not something you expect,” Nasmyth told the Guardian about the prize. “It’s a huge amount of money, I haven’t had time to think it through.”

“The point is not to make rock stars of us, but of the science itself.” 

Reflecting on his teams win in the Physics category, Chuck Bennet (Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore) had this to say, “The point is not to make rock stars of us, but of the science itself,” he said. “I don’t think people realise how big a role science plays in their lives. In everything you do, from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep, there’s something about what you’re doing that involves scientific advances. I don’t think people think about that at all.”

We leave the last words to Christopher Hacon (University of Utah), who shared the prize for Mathematics, “I’ll start by paying taxes. And I have six kids, so the rest will evaporate.”