At Star-Studded Science Awards, a New Breakthrough is Announced

Tuxedo-clad celebrities joined tech superstars like Mark Zuckerberg and Sergey Brin in Silicon Vally Thursday to announce the latest round of Breakthrough Prizes for science research. And while the stars of the show this round were life science and physics researchers, the crew of wealthy donors behind the awards made news by announcing a new high-dollar prize in yet another field.

Amid $21 million in awards announced at this year’s lavish gala celebration, the team heralded its new Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics, which will offer $3 million to each winning team or individual. The new award will be the latest to join the growing suite of the world’s richest science awards, each prize more than doubling the latest Nobel.

Initiated by Russian Entrepreneur Yuri Milner— and co-sponsored with Brin of Google, Facebook's Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, Chinese entrepreneur Jack Ma and wife Cathy Zhang, and 23andMe co-founder Anne Wojcicki— the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences started in 2013, awarding $3 million to each winner. A similar sister-award is the Fundamental Physics Prize, started by Milner in 2012. 

While the announcement of the mathematics prize grabbed the attention of the research world, the Thursday event focused on the latest round of Breakthrough Prizes, awarded to two physicists and six life scientists.

2014 Fundamental Physics Prize: 

  • 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. 

2014 Breakthrough Prize for Life Sciences

  • James Allison of the MD Anderson Cancer Center, for his discovery of the 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. 
  • 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; 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.

The founders of the Breakthrough Prizes created them with the intention of promoting scientists as heroes and celebrities, as Zuckerberg said, similar Einstein's status as a “scientific rock star” of his time. So the latest awards ceremony put on the ritz to bring some attention to the event.  

In addition to tech stars like Jack Dorsey and Larry Page, Hollywood celebs like Anna Kendrick, Glenn Close, Conan O’Brien and Kevin Spacey gathered to honor the researchers. 

It is worth noting that, while the Breakthrough Prizes are sort of a hybrid of the Oscar and the Nobel, there is one unfortunate similarity— men have dominated the awards in its early years, with not one female researcher awarded in 2014. Here's hoping for a different kind of breakthrough soon.