A program that’s richer than the Nobels rewarded more than a dozen researchers tonight with Breakthrough Prize awards amounting to $25.4 million in all.
The Breakthrough Prize program was founded in 2012 with support from such tech luminaries as Google co-founder Sergei Brin and his wife, Anne Wojcicki (23andMe); Russian entrepreneur-investor Yuri Milner and his wife, Julia Milner, and Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan (also known for her part in the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative).
Since then, more than $200 million has been handed out.
The backers of the Breakthrough Prizes are allied with several science-boosting Breakthrough Initiatives, including efforts to detect signals from extraterrestrial civilizations and send nanoprobes to the Alpha Centauri star system.
Most of tonight’s winners were revealed during a ceremony at NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley – with Morgan Freeman, star of the “Through the Wormhole” science documentary series, serving as host.
But a special prize for fundamental physics was announced months ago, to honor the team behind the history-making detection of gravitational waves at the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory, or LIGO. Three of LIGO’s leaders – Caltech’s Kip Thorne and Ronald Drever, along with MIT’s Rainer Weiss – are divvying up $1 million, while $2 million more is being shared among 1,012 LIGO collaborators.
Here are the other award winners:
Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences
Each laureate receives $3 million.
Harvard geneticist Stephen Elledge, who showed how cells sense and respond to damage in their DNA and provided insights into the development and treatment of cancer. Elledge and his colleagues developed a screening test known as VirScan that reveals any viruses that a patient has ever had from a single drop of blood.
Harry Noller, a biologist at the University of California at Santa Cruz, who discovered the centrality of RNA in forming the active centers of the ribosome. Ribosomes are part of the fundamental machinery of protein synthesis in all cells.
Stanford biologist Roeland Nusse, who pioneered research on a gene known as Wnt, which plays a role in triggering breast cancer an well as in controlling embryonic development.
Yoshinori Ohsumi, a biologist at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, whose research shed light on autophagy, the process for degrading and recycling cellular components. Failures in the process are implicated in diseases including osteoarthritis and cancer. Ohsumi won a share of the Nobel Prize for medicine earlier this year.
Huda Zoghbi, a medical researcher at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital, who discovered the genetic causes and biochemical mechanisms behind spinocerebellar ataxia and Rett syndrome. Her discoveries have raised hopes for curing other neurodegenerative and neurological diseases.
Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics
Joseph Polchinski of the University of California at Santa Barbara shares a $3 million prize with Harvard physicists Andrew Strominger and Cumrun Vafa for their work in quantum field theory, string theory and quantum gravity.
Polchinski is known for his work on the holographic principle, the notion that our seemingly 3-D universe is a 2-D projection onto one surface of a vast multidimensional structure.
Strominger and Vafa have focused on the application of string theory and extradimensional physics to the behavior of black holes – and a potential solution to the mystery of what happens to information that falls into a black hole.
Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics
Jean Bourgain, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., has been awarded a $3 million prize for his contributions to high-dimensional geometry, mathematical analysis, combinatorics, partial differential equations and number theory. In 1994, the Belgian-born Bourgain won the Fields Medal, commonly regarded as mathematics’ closest analog to the Nobel Prize.
New Horizons in Physics and Mathematics Prize
These are prizes for early-career scientists, adding up to $600,000.
Physics: Perimeter Institute’s Asimina Aranitaki, Stanford’s Peter Graham and Berkeley’s Surjeet Rajendran share $100,000. Princeton’s Simone Giombi and Harvard’s Xi Yin share $100,000. Princeton’s Frans Pretorius receives $100,000.
Mathematics: Columbia’s Mohammed Abouzaid and Hugo Duminil-Copin, a mathematician at the Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques and the University of Geneva, each receive $100,000. The University of Oregon’s Benjamin Elias and Geordie Williamson of Kyoto University and the University of Sydney share $100,000.
Breakthrough Junior Challenge
This is a global science video competition designed to inspire creative thinking about fundamental concepts in the life sciences, physics or mathematics. More than 6,000 entries were received for the second annual competition.
Peruvian student Antonella Masini, 18, focused on quantum entanglement in her video. Currently a senior at the Cambridge College Lima, Masini will receive a $250,000 scholarship. Her teacher, Luke Peedell, will receive a $50,000 award, and the Cambridge College Lima will receive a new, state-of-the-art science lab valued at $100,000.
Singapore’s Deanna See, 17, created a video about antibiotic resistance. A senior at the Raffles Institution in Singapore, See will receive a $250,000 scholarship. Her biology teacher, Wong Seok Hui, considered a civil servant in Singapore, is unable to accept the $50,000 prize, but will instead re-direct the funds to The Raffles Scholarship Series. The lab prize will be donated to the Raffles Girls School.
Philippine student Hillary Diane Andales, 17, was the top scorer in the competition’s online Popular Vote Challenge, thanks to a video about path integral interpretation in quantum physics. The Breakthrough Prize is donating a science lab to her school, the Philippine Science High School, which was severely damaged by Typhoon Yolanda in 2013 and is currently rebuilding.