Red carpets and hard science had a rare meeting last night, as the 2017 Breakthrough Prize ceremony commenced, with some of the world’s top scientists, astronauts, and Silicon Valley giants rubbing shoulders with celebrities, actors, and musicians.
Morgan Freeman hosted the fifth annual ceremony on Sunday evening at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. The awards were founded in 2012 by some of the biggest names in the tech industry, including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Google’s Sergey Brin, 23andMe’s Anne Wojcicki, and physicist-turned-venture capitalist Yuri Milner. With all its glitz, glamor, and generous prize money, the awards have come to be known as the “Oscars" of science.
“There has never been a more important time to support science,” Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said in a statement. “The 2017 Breakthrough Prize laureates represent the leaders in scientific research in physics, math and life sciences. Their breakthroughs will unlock new possibilities and help make the world a better place for everyone.”
Earlier this year the team behind the LIGO experiment, the first detection of gravitational waves, was awarded the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics – in recognition of a truly extraordinary scientific achievement.
The rest of the winners are as follows:
The 2017 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics was awarded to Joseph Polchinski, Andrew Strominger, and Cumrun Vafa. All three managed to take home $3 million each for their advancement of quantum field theory, string theory, and quantum gravity.
The 2017 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences was awarded to Stephen J. Elledge, Harry F. Noller, Roeland Nusse, Yoshinori Ohsumi, and Huda Yahya Zoghbi. All of their work has helped contribute to our understanding of cells and biological systems, which in turn has helped deepen our understanding of cancers, neurodegenerative, and neurological diseases.
Ohsumi also won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine just two months ago.
The Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics was awarded to Jean Bourgain, for his contribution to multiple transformative contributions to analysis, combinatorics, partial differential equations, high-dimensional geometry, and number theory.
They also awarded "New Horizons" prizes to early-career researchers in the fields of Mathematics and Physics. The Breakthrough Junior Challenge was awarded to two winners this year. Antonella Masini, 18, from Peru, and Deanna See, 17, from Singapore, pocketed $400,000 in prizes for them, their teachers, and their school. Deanna won the prize for her life science video on antibiotic resistance and “superbugs”.
All of this was accompanied by a gaggle of celebrities, including Will.i.am, Sienna Miller, Bryce Dallas Howard, Vin Diesel, Kevin Durant, Dev Patel, and a live performance from Alicia Keys.
Turning science into a flashy, star-studded show is no doubt going to have its critics. On the other hand, the founders argue that scientists don’t quite get the celebration they undoubtedly deserve and part of these prizes are to rectify that.
"This project is really mostly about public outreach,” said Milner. “That’s why we have a televised ceremony and everything around it, because the founders want to send a signal that fundamental science is important.”
Nevertheless, it seems like all this celebrity schmoozing is not going to change the awardees. As Zoghib, winner of one of the five Breakthrough prizes in Life Sciences, told the Guardian: “Material things and limelight are fleeting, they come and go. You could give me all the money in the world to do another job and I wouldn’t do it. I am working on something that will help people, and that reward is with you every day.”