The Breakthrough Prizes were awarded in three categories on November 8 in a glittering awards ceremony in NASA’s Ames Research Centre, California, hosted by Seth MacFarlane and with Hilary Swank and Russell Crowe in attendance while Pharrell Williams performed live. The awards were instituted in 2012 by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and carry a hefty $3 million tag. Other founders of the award are Google’s Sergey Brin, 23andme’s Anne Wojcicki, Alibaba’s Jack Ma and his wife Cathy Zhang, Milner’s wife Julia, and Facebook supremo Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan.
The mathematics prize went to American Ian Agol, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, for his contributions to the study of surfaces in four-dimensions or less, a field called low-dimensional topology. The life sciences prize was awarded to Edward S. Boyden, Karl Deisseroth, John Hardy, Helen Hobbs and Svante Pääbo.
Boyden and Deisseroth were lauded for their efforts in optogenetics – showing how neurons could be controlled with light. The duo was also awarded the European Brain Prize in 2013 for the same work. John Hardy was among the discoverers of a gene that, when inherited, almost always causes Alzheimer’s disease. Similarly, Helen Hobbs co-discovered a gene, PCSK9, destroying which caused the person to become immune to heart disease. Finally, Svante Pääbo was awarded a prize for his work retrieving parts of the genome of Neandertals and using it to construct a genetic history of humankind.
The fundamental-physics prize was bagged by five scientific experiments, and over 1,300 physicists, worldwide investigating neutrino oscillations – the discovery of which also won this year’s Nobel Prize for physics. The experiments are: Daya Bay (China), KamLAND, K2K/T2K and SuperKamiokande (Japan), and the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (Canada). The Nobel Prize for physics went to Takaaki Kajita and Arthur B. McDonald, who had worked with Kamiokande and Sudbury, respectively, to discover neutrino oscillations in 1998-2002.
The Breakthrough Prizes are also accompanied by a suite of awards for early-career work, called the New Horizons Prizes that come with $100,000 apiece. The physics prizes were split between three groups – one for work on topological phases in condensed matter (the same group also won the Raymond and Beverly Sackler International Physics Prize in 2014), one for contributions to theoretical cosmology, and one – Yuji Tachikawa – for work in theoretical physics. The New Horizons mathematics prize was shared by Larry Guth and André Arroja Neves for contributing to solutions in geometry. A third recipient, the German mathematician Peter Scholze, declined the prize.
A new prize was added to the list this year, called the Breakthrough Junior Challenge. It was won by Ryan Chester, a high-school student, for a video explaining Einstein’s special theory of relativity. Chester will receive $250,000, his teacher $50,000, and his school a $100,000-lab. Previous winners of the Breakthrough Prizes include string theorist Ashoke Sen, who won the first Fundamental Physics Prize in 2012, of the Harish-Chandra Research Institute, Allahabad, and Shiraz Minwalla of the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research, who won the New Horizons physics prize in 2013.