On Sunday, November 3, celebrities and boldface names in the tech community met up at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View to celebrate the laureates of the 2020 Breakthrough Prize, which is now in its eighth year.
The evening was hosted by talk show host James Corden and saw celebrities of the caliber of Taraji P. Henson, Drew Barrymore, and Allison Janney presenting the winners with their prizes. There is one winner in Mathematics and five winners in the Life Sciences category, while the Physics prize has been awarded to the whole Event Horizon collaboration. A Special Prize in Fundamental Physics was also awarded this year to the three inventors of the theory of supergravity, Sergio Ferrara, Daniel Z. Freedman, and Peter van Nieuwenhuizen.
The Life Sciences prizes have rewarded groundbreaking research in areas of physiology that have huge repercussions on society, such as pain management, obesity, and neurodegenerative diseases. Laureate Professor Virginia Lee was awarded the prize for her work on neurodegenerative conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
Her work on the biological pathways of these diseases has been fundamental in the field. Lee and her group proposed the tau hypothesis, suggesting an excessive change in tau proteins could be a possible mechanism for the onset of some of these conditions.
Lee stresses the importance of modeling to properly understand the diseases so that we might have hope of finding a cure in the future. Currently, approaches focus on delaying the onset of symptoms as we don't yet have a cure.
“Once you’ve created a model you can follow how it develops and hopefully get insights into the pathways affected by the pathology,” Professor Lee, director of the Center for Neurodegenerative Disease Research at the University of Pennsylvania, told IFLScience. “People are also trying to understand the pathways that lead to the pathologies, such as investigating the genetic risk factors. We want to study the contributions of these risk factors.”
An appreciation of how important it is to understand the molecular pathways behind diseases is shared among the Life Sciences laureates. Professor Jeffrey Friedman has worked for decades on understanding the biological basis of obesity at a molecular level. His work dispels myths about obesity and challenges the prevalent culture of “fat-shaming”.
“Many people in the lay public think that how much we eat and how much we weigh is under voluntary control, but there’s a long history indicating that these are regulated by basic centers in the brain,” Professor Friedman from Rockefeller University and Howard Hughes Medical Institute told IFLScience.
Friedman and his team identified an important hormone named leptin, which works a little bit like a thermostat. It is secreted in proportion to the amount of fat a person possesses and suppresses appetite. So, if you have a lot of fat you should secrete more of this hormone and lose weight. However, some people's bodies fail to properly regulate the hormone. The effectiveness of leptin is determined by genes. As food in society has become more readily available and packed with calories, it is not surprising that we witness more people struggling with obesity. And it’s not a matter of simply lacking the willpower to lose weight as some erroneously believe.
Understanding the minute details of how our bodies work is key to developing new therapies, and research conducted by Prof. David Julius at the University of California, San Francisco is extremely timely. He and his team discovered the molecules, cells, and mechanisms behind pain sensation.
“I just wanted to go in and help to lay the groundwork for the most basic question on how we detect things in our environment that cause pain,” Julius told IFLScience.
The detection of pain but also of sensations such as heat or cold is carried out by nerve endings, which then relay this information to the brain via the spinal cord. In certain types of chronic pain such as arthritis or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), the nerve endings are a key aspect of the pain and Julius’ research focuses on understanding how these differ in people not suffering from these conditions.
It is not just the mysteries of the human body that are recognized by the prizes. The quest to unlock the secrets of the universe has also been rewarded significantly this year.
The Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics marks the invention of supergravity, a yet-to-be-proven theory that aims to reconcile quantum mechanics with general relativity. These are the pillars of modern physics, but while great in their own fields, they do not interact well with each other.
The standard model of particle physics aims to explain the fundamental particles and their interaction with the fundamental forces. It is not a perfect model and to resolve some of its gaps, a theory called supersymmetry was introduced. But even that had limitations.
“Supergravity came from supersymmetry. Supersymmetry was a very elegant theory but it left gravity out. And a good theory has to include gravity,” Daniel Freedman, a visiting professor at MIT and Stanford University, told IFLScience. “It brings gravity together with quantum mechanics. It brings gravity together with particle physics.’
Co-recipient Professor Sergio Ferrara, from CERN and INFN, added: “When one invokes supersymmetry in Einstein’s theory of gravitation, one is led to a new theory which is not in contradiction with Einstein’s theory. It’s an extension of it!”
The “regular” physics prize is also related to gravity but focuses on the observational side. The recipient is the incredible Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) collaboration, a team of 347 people. Last April they published the first-ever picture of a supermassive black hole.
“It’s an iconic picture for science. But more than that it tells us about how black holes feed and how they dynamically exist at the center of galaxies,” Director of the EHT Shep Doeleman told IFLScience. “Right away we see that decades of theories are now on very solid footing.”
The money from the prize together with a recent NSF award will fund the next big step for the EHT. Doeleman stresses that the collaboration is actively looking for more young researchers to join, noting that the contributions of the junior members of the team were crucial to the production of the historic image.
The Breakthrough Prize also recognizes the fundamental work of early career researchers and the New Horizons Prizes were awarded to 12 young researchers in Physics, Math, and Life Sciences.
Among the winners is Dr Samaya Nissanke who received the New Horizons Prize in Fundamental Physics for her work, which includes her contribution to the first observation of a neutron star collision, event GW 170817. This momentous discovery marked the first study of an astronomical source using both gravity and different types of light. This is known as multimessenger astronomy.
“Multimessenger astronomy is allowing us a new perspective and new insights into the most fundamental objects in the universe such as black holes and neutron stars," Dr Nissanke explained. "It’s really allowing us to answer deep questions about the nature of space-time, gravity, and extreme matter.”
Californian teenager Jeffery Chen was also honored as the winner of the 5th Annual Breakthrough Junior Challenge for his incredible video explaining neutrino astronomy. Check it out below.
A total of $21.6 million has been awarded to the prize winners. The breakthrough foundation is sponsored by Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, Ma Huateng, Yuri and Julia Milner, and Anne Wojcicki.