You may have heard that billionaires Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, Yuri Milner, and Jack Ma have sponsored something called the Breakthrough Prizes. These are $3 million awards handed out each year to people—generally world-class scientists—doing pioneering work in such fields as the life sciences, physics, and mathematics. The big money total is sort of a jab at the paltry $1 million Nobels, and the prizes themselves are meant to celebrate the sciences and drum up interest in solving the hardest problems. If you haven’t heard about the awards, that’s OK. You’re in the majority.
The big-name backers of these prizes tried on Thursday night to bring some added attention to their largesse. They held a star-studded awards ceremony event at the NASA facility in Mountain View, Calif. It was in many ways an odd choice, since the place suffers from drastic budget cuts and has had to fight, fight, and then fight some more to pursue its cutting-edge science. Nonetheless, folks such as Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey showed up in their tuxedos, as did Rupert Murdoch, Conan O’Brien, and the evening’s host, Kevin Spacey. Brin kept it real by sporting a sweatshirt and a backpack.
The celebrities and business moguls gathered inside Hangar One. It’s one of the few landmarks in Silicon Valley—a massive structure that used to house dirigibles. Recently, Hangar One had its chemical-laced outer shell removed, so it’s now just a giant metal skeleton. This forced the producers of the awards ceremony to build a makeshift, plastic awards hall inside the Hangar. It ended up looking as if a tiny greenhouse full of penguins had been injected into the building. A guy who produces the Oscars dreamed this up, and French Laundry catered the event, so it had to be good, right?
I’d like to tell you more about the glamor and heavy discussions inside, and the palpable joy the attendees felt when they received their awards. But the press, also in tuxedos and best evening dresses, were cordoned off in a tent outside the glasshouse. They were allowed to leave briefly to go to the restroom—with the warning, “Don’t wander around”—and to sit on the floor and watch the proceedings on two small television screens. As awesome as this sounds, only a couple of the local technology reporters showed up to enjoy it.
The big news of the evening was the introduction of a Breakthrough Prize in mathematics. Starting next year, it will join a similar prize in physics and six prizes in life sciences. And, of course, there were this year’s winners.
- Michael B. Green, University of Cambridge, and John H. Schwarz, California Institute of Technology, for opening new perspectives on quantum gravity and the unification of forces.
- James Allison, MD Anderson Cancer Center, for the discovery of T-cell checkpoint blockade as effective cancer therapy.
- Mahlon DeLong, Emory University, for defining the interlocking circuits in the brain that malfunction in Parkinson’s disease. This scientific foundation underlies the circuit-based treatment of Parkinson’s disease by deep brain stimulation.
- Michael Hall, University of Basel, for the discovery of Target of Rapamycin (TOR) and its role in cell growth control.
- Robert Langer, David H. Koch Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for discoveries leading to the development of controlled drug-release systems and new biomaterials.
- Richard Lifton, Yale University and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, for the discovery of genes and biochemical mechanisms that cause hypertension.
- Alexander Varshavsky, California Institute of Technology, for discovering critical molecular determinants and biological functions of intracellular protein degradation.