Compare the presentation of the Nobel prizes to the glitz and glamour of Hollywood’s Oscars or the music industry’s Grammys, and you might be left wanting. Sure, we all love science, but it’s not always presented in a way that might be appealing to the general public.
To redress the balance, a team of wealthy backers – including Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Sergey Brin – set up the Breakthrough Prizes, and yesterday they held their third annual awards ceremony. Hosted by Family Guy creator Seth Macfarlane, and with celebrities in attendance including Russell Crowe and Pharrell Williams, the show certainly wasn’t lacking on panache.
Co-founder Yuri Milner has said previously that he wants the Breakthrough Prizes to turn scientists into “rock stars,” and with the amount of money on offer that’s certainly a possibility. In total $21.9 million (£14.5 million) of prize money was awarded to a huge array of scientists, celebrating achievements in physics, biology, mathematics, and more.
Arguably the most notable award of the evening, and one that seemed to be at least a partial dig in the direction of the Nobels, was the Fundamental Physics prize. This was awarded to 1,377 scientists from five separate teams across China, Japan, and Canada, who together found that particles called neutrinos have mass, something that flies in the face of the Standard Model of Physics.
The teams shared a $3 million (£2 million) prize – with two-thirds of the money going to the team leaders. In October, the same research won the Nobel Prize for Physics; on that occasion, only Arthur McDonald of Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada, and Takaaki Kajita at the University of Tokyo received an award. They were again among the recipients of the Breakthrough Prize.
“There is a message here that science is a much more collective effort than it was 100 years ago,” said Milner, reported Nature. “It is international, it is diverse, it involves lots of people.”
In the Life Sciences category, five scientists across four areas of research were each given a $3 million prize. This included Helen Hobbs of the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center and her team, who found that inhibiting a liver protein called PCSK9 could dramatically reduce the risk of developing coronary heart disease.
Elsewhere, the Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics, also $3 million, was awarded to Ian Agol of the University of California at Berkeley for his complex work on three-dimensional “manifolds,” or 3D versions of 2D structures, which Nature said could help understand space-time curves.
Eight “promising junior researchers” were each awarded a share of five $100,000 (£66,000) prizes for their work as part of the New Horizons prizes (no relation to the spacecraft), while the Breakthrough Junior Challenge went to Ryan Chester of North Royalton High School in Ohio, for his science video explaining how relativity works, which you can check out below.
In their relatively brief time on the scene, the Breakthrough Prizes already seem to be making waves in scientific fields. The awards were aired live on National Geographic last night, the first time in their history, with a one-hour recap being shown on Fox on November 29.
With a star-studded ceremony, plenty of excitement, and significant cash prizes, maybe Milner’s dream of boosting the profile of scientists can be achieved – while providing crucial funding to areas of research at the same time.
“By challenging conventional thinking and expanding knowledge over the long term, scientists can solve the biggest problems of our time,” said Mark Zuckerberg in a statement. “The Breakthrough Prize honors achievements in science and math so we can encourage more pioneering research and celebrate scientists as the heroes they truly are.”
The full list of winners is available on the Breakthrough Prize website.