The Breakthrough Prize board has announced the winner of this year's awards in Fundamental Physics, Life Sciences, and Mathematics. The prizes, now in their seventh year, will see the laureates taking home $3 million for their work.
There are four winners in the Life Sciences category and one in Mathematics, while an entire collaboration takes away the Physics prize. Eleven early career researchers have also been recognized by the New Horizons prizes. This year, a Special Prize in Fundamental Physics was also awarded to the discoverers of supergravity, which was announced in August.
The winner of the Mathematics prize is Alex Eskin for his many revolutionary discoveries including the proof of the Magic Wand Theorem. This was achieved with the late great mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman to win the Fields Medal in mathematics.
Life Sciences prizes were given to several individuals working in different fields. David Julius receives the prize for his work on the mechanisms and molecules underlying how we feel pain, which has laid the foundations for non-opioid analgesics. Jeffrey M. Friedman also receives the prize for his discovery of a new endocrine system that affects how much we eat and weigh. F. Ulrich Hartl and Arthur L. Horwich share one prize for their work on the molecular chaperones that aid the folding of proteins.
The last winner in Life Sciences is Virginia Man-Yee Lee whose work on the protein TDP43 has been revolutionary. The accumulation of this protein has been seen in patients suffering from several neurodegenerative disorders including early-onset dementia and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), hinting at similar underlying mechanisms for these conditions.
“Initially we set out to try to identify the molecular face of all these major neurodegenerative diseases. And that includes Alzheimer's, Parkinson's disease, ALS, and frontotemporal lobar degeneration,” Dr Lee, director of the Center for Neurodegenerative Disease Research at the University of Pennsylvania, told IFLScience.
Within this scope, Dr Lee and her group proposed the tau hypothesis, where an excessive change in tau proteins is seen as a possible mechanism for the onset of some of these neurodegenerative conditions. The increase in tau was seen in about half of the cases studied by the team in the late '80s so they kept looking for other mechanisms.
“We had four or five people working steadily for about five years on this problem. And the key was to be able to generate good antibodies that recognize the pathology. And the good antibodies were a tool to fish out the proteins.”
Despite the importance of the discovery, Dr Lee admits how much work is still necessary on these conditions and how TDP43 is “a difficult protein to work with”. She notes that there is still much to learn about the full molecular face of these conditions.
The Physics Prize was awarded to the team behind one of the biggest observations of the year, the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) collaboration. Last April, the EHT published the first image from the closest region around a supermassive black hole, the gargantuan object at the core of M87.
“We feel that this image is going to become iconic, that this image will become one of the great images in astronomy just because it marks the first moment where we saw something that we thought was completely unseeable,” Dr Shep Doeleman, director of the Event Horizon Telescope and a senior research fellow at the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, told IFLScience.
To achieve this important breakthrough, the team used radio telescopes spread across the globe in April 2017. Thanks to a technique called interferometry and the use of these observatories in unison, they were able to achieve incredible resolution, enough to peer at the edges of the faraway black hole.
”I think everybody in the collaboration will tell you this is just the beginning," said Dr Doeleman. "Now we understand that we can turn this black hole into a laboratory. We can make it a test chamber for the theories of gravity, for the theories of how black holes attract matter to them, the theories and how black holes launch light-speed jets that can pierce entire galaxies. The best is really yet to come.”
The EHT will continue to push boundaries. The many early career researchers that make up the team are hard at work to improve its capabilities with the hope that we will soon go from having still images of a black hole to a movie. In 2017 they not only observed M87 but also looked at Sagittarius A*, the supermassive black hole within the Milky Way. The team is also working on this data, which is more complex, and some important results are expected in the coming years. The $3 million prize will be shared equally with the 347 scientists in the collaboration.
Doeleman underlined the importance of younger researchers, and the Breakthrough Prizes acknowledge their key contributions. Tim Austin, Xinwen Zhu, and Emmy Murphy all singly won a New Horizons in Mathematics Prize taking home $100,000 each.
Three groups were awarded the New Horizons in Physics prizes. Xie Chen, Lukasz Fidkowski, Michael Levin, and Max A. Metlitski received theirs for their work on topological states of matter. Jo Dunkley, Samaya Nissanke, and Kendrick Smith won for their method of extracting fundamental physics from astronomical data. And last but not least, Simon Caron-Huot and Pedro Vieira won for their profound contributions to the understanding of quantum field theory.
The winners will be honored at a ceremony taking place on Sunday, November 3, 2019, at Hangar One, Mountain View, California.