Every year, the Breakthrough Prizes acknowledge top achievements in fundamental physics, life sciences and mathematics. They were instituted in 2012 by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, investor Yuri Milner and his wife Julia, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, his wife Priscilla Chan, Anne Wojcicki of the genetic testing company 23andMe and Chinese businessman Ma Huateng. Since then, the awards have distributed a total of $200 million in prize money.
Prizes for the current year were announced on December 3 at the NASA Ames Research Centre, California, at a gala event broadcast by National Geographic. The ceremony was hosted by Hollywood actor Morgan Freeman.
The prizes for the current year amount to a total of $22 million, with seven awardees getting $3 million each – the highest amount any science prize carries. Additionally, three ‘New Horizons in Physics’ prizes, each worth $100,000, were awarded to early career physicists and three $300,000-prizes to early-career mathematicians.
The Breakthrough Junior Challenge also awarded one student with a $250,000 scholarship, plus an additional $150,000 to be given to the student’s school and science teacher. This prize is funded solely by the couples Zuckerberg/Chan and Yuri/Julia, through combined funds from the Milner Global Foundation and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.
According to the awards’ website, “The Breakthrough Prize was created to celebrate the achievements of scientists, physicists and mathematicians, whose genius help us understand our world, and whose advances shape our future,” in Zuckerberg’s words.
The names of the winners follow.
- Joanne Chory (Salk Institute for Biological Studies and Howard Hughes Medical Institute) “for discovering how plants optimise their growth, development, and cellular structure to transform sunlight into chemical energy”
- Don W. Cleveland (Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research at University of California, San Diego) “for elucidating the molecular pathogenesis of a type of inherited ALS, including the role of glia in neurodegeneration, and for establishing antisense oligonucleotide therapy in animal models of ALS and Huntington disease”
- Kazutoshi Mori (Kyoto University) “for elucidating the unfolded protein response, a cellular quality-control system that detects disease-causing unfolded proteins and directs cells to take corrective measures”
- Kim Nasmyth (University of Oxford) and Peter Walter (University of California, San Francisco) “for elucidating the sophisticated mechanism that mediates the perilous separation of duplicated chromosomes during cell division and thereby prevents genetic diseases such as cancer”
- Charles L. Bennett (Johns Hopkins University)
- Gary Hinshaw (University of British Columbia)
- Norman Jarosik (Princeton University)
- Lyman Page Jr. and David N. Spergel (Princeton University, New Jersey)
… and 22 other physicists – all for their work on the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, a space probe that studied temperature variations in the radiation leftover from the Big Bang explosion almost 14 billion years ago.
- Christopher Hacon (University of Utah)
- James McKernan (University of California, San Diego)
… both “for transformational contributions to birational algebraic geometry”, which works with abstract objects that exist in over a thousand dimensions, “especially to the minimal model program in all dimensions”.
Physics – Christopher Hirata (Ohio State University), Andrea Young (University of California, Santa Barbara) and Douglas Stanford (Institute for Advanced Study and Stanford University)
Mathematics – Aaron Naber (Northwestern University), Maryna Viazovska (École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne), Zhiwei Yun (Yale University) and Wei Zhang (Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Columbia University)
The awardees were chosen from an application base of over 11,000 received from 178 countries.
Between presentations by the prizes’ founders, the gala night was lit up by performances by Wiz Khalifa, Nana-Ou-Yang, Mila Kunis, Ashton Kutcher, Kerry Washington, Mayim Bialik, Lily Collins, Katie Ledecky, John Urschel and Miss USA Kara McCullough (who is a chemist).
Milner, with whom the prizes are most closely associated, studied for a PhD in physics before he became an entrepreneur. He made his billions by investing early in companies like Facebook and Twitter. Apart from the prizes, he also funded the Breakthrough Initiatives in 2015 to support four projects called ‘Listen’, ‘Watch’, ‘Starshot’ and ‘Message’. All of them are associated in some way with humankind’s search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
In stark departure to the Nobel Prizes, the Breakthrough Prizes have also been won on multiple occasions by Indian researchers. Thirty-seven physicists from around the country were among the 1,015 awardees of a ‘special’ physics prize in 2016. Apart from this, Shiraz Minwalla won a ‘New Horizons’ physics prize in 2014 and Ashoke Sen won a Breakthrough physics prize in 2012.