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A color-coded projection map of the full sky shows temperature variations as measured by NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe. (NASA Photo)

This year’s Breakthrough Prizes, cast as the “Oscars of Science,” are going to genetic engineers, disease fighters, math whizzes — and the scientists on the cosmos-mapping team behind the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, or WMAP.

Today’s award of $22 million in prizes is being wrapped into a ceremony at NASA’s Ames Research Center that combines Hollywood glitz with Silicon Valley brainpower.

Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman is the host for the show, which is being televised by National Geographic and streamed live via Facebook and YouTube at 7 p.m. PT tonight. Celebrity presenters include Ashton Kutcher (“That ’70s Show”); his wife, Mila Kunis (“Bad Moms”); and Kerry Washington (“Scandal”).

The prize program was established in 2012 by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and his wife, Julia Milner, in league with Google co-founder Sergey Brin, 23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan.

It ranks among science’s richest award programs, with seven $3 million prizes being awarded this year in life sciences, fundamental physics and mathematics. Another $1 million is going out to early-career scientists, students and teachers.

This year’s physics award is notable in that it’s being shared by 27 researchers on the science team for WMAP, which produced a precedent-setting map of the cosmic microwave background radiation nearly 15 years ago.

“This is amazing, and certainly surprising,” Charles Bennett, an astrophysicist at Johns Hopkins University and the principal investigator for the WMAP mission, told GeekWire in advance of tonight’s ceremony. “We knew we were doing something important, but you never know how it’s going to be received until it all happens.”

Bennett and four other team leaders — the University of British Columbia’s Gary Hinshaw and Princeton’s Norman Jarosik, David Spergel and Lyman Page — will take the biggest shares of the $3 million prize. But everyone involved in the project will benefit.

Charles Bennett
Astrophysicist Charles Bennett is among the winners of this year’s Breakthrough Prizes, styled as the “Oscars of Science.” (JHU Photo)

Back in 2003, WMAP’s scientists analyzed tiny temperature variations in the microwave background radiation, left behind by the afterglow of the Big Bang, to come up with what were then unprecedented measurements of the universe’s age and composition.

The results suggested that the Big Bang happened about 13.8 billion years ago, producing a universe that is dominated by mysterious ingredients known as dark matter and dark energy.

“It’s relatively simple, but at the same time strange, that only about 5 percent of the universe is atoms,” Bennett said.

About 25 percent consists of dark matter, an exotic class of stuff that can be detected only by its gravitational effect. Dark energy, a factor contributing to the accelerating expansion of the universe, accounts for the other 70 percent.

“In one fell swoop, we had a quantification of the universe that was pretty robust,” Bennett said.

At the time, the findings were hailed as a “cosmic convergence” of measurements made by multiple instruments. Since then, follow-up campaigns such as the European Space Agency’s Planck mission have largely confirmed WMAP’s view of the universe — but Bennett acknowledged that some nagging “tensions” have cropped up and have yet to be reconciled.

For example, the measurements derived from observations of the universe at different scales of the “cosmic distance ladder” suggest that the universe is expanding significantly more rapidly than scientists would have thought, based on data from WMAP and Planck.

“I predict that these tensions are going to get worse,” Bennett said.

Future studies could resolve the tensions, lead to new insights into the nature of dark energy and dark matter, or even open the door to new theories and completely new perspectives on the cosmos.

The multibillion-dollar Large Hadron Collider and other particle detectors could make headway on solving the cosmic mysteries. So could ground-based telescopes such as the Cosmology Large Angular Scale Surveyor, or CLASS, a project led by Johns Hopkins University. Meanwhile, in space, the European Space Agency’s Gaia and Euclid missions should help crack the case.

“The future is pretty bright for making additional Breakthrough Prizes in cosmology,” Bennett said.

Here’s the lineup of other Breakthrough Prizes announced today:

Life Sciences

  • Don Cleveland, University of California at 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.”
  • Joanne Chory, Salk Institute for Biological Studies and Howard Hughes Medical Institute: “For discovering the molecular mechanisms by which plants extract information from light and shade to modify their programs of shoot and leaf growth in the photosynthetic harvest of light.”
  • Kim Nasmyth, University of Oxford: “For elucidating the sophisticated mechanism that mediates the perilous separation of duplicated chromosomes during cell division and thereby prevents genetic diseases such as cancer.”
  • Peter Walter, University of California at San Francisco: “For elucidating the unfolded protein response, a cellular quality-control system that detects disease-causing unfolded proteins and directs cells to take corrective measures. “
  • Kazutoshi Mori, Kyoto University: “Also, for elucidating the unfolded protein response, a cellular quality-control system that detects disease-causing unfolded proteins and directs cells to take corrective measures.”

Mathematics

  • The University of Utah’s Christopher Hacon and UCSD’s James McKernan: “For transformational contributions to birational algebraic geometry, especially to the minimal model program in all dimensions.”

New Horizons Prizes

$100,000 prizes recognize the achievements of early-career physicists and mathematicians:

  • 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).

Breakthrough Junior Challenge

The third annual Breakthrough Junior Challenge recognizes Hillary Diane Andales,18, of the Philippines. She will receive $250,000 in educational prizes; her science teacher will receive $50,000; and her school will receive a new science laboratory valued at $100,000, designed by and in partnership with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Andales was the top scorer in the Popular Vote Challenge that was conducted as part of last year’s Breakthrough Junior Challenge.

This year’s video, submitted in the physics category, focused on reference frames in general relativity:

The Breakthrough Prize ceremony is being aired at 7 p.m. PT today on the National Geographic Channel, and streamed on the Breakthrough Facebook and YouTube channels as well as National Geographic TV’s Facebook and YouTube channels.

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