Yuri Milner
breakthrough prize

These science superstars just won the 2017 Breakthrough Prize

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Today at the 5th annual Breakthrough Prize, some of Silicon Valley’s biggest names will award more than $25 million to scientific research in departments across the globe.

The event splices together research scientists far more accustomed to red tape than red carpets with tech’s deepest-pocketed and most idealistic upper echelons. The result is a flashy, hopeful hybrid event serving scientific good and valley ego alike. Did we mention that it’s hosted by Morgan Freeman?

Like last year, the main awards honor veteran researchers in three categories: life sciences, fundamental physics, and mathematics. Here are this year’s winners:

Life Sciences winners (individual $3 million prizes)

  • Stephen J. Elledge, Gregor Mendel Professor of Genetics and Medicine in the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School, for his work investigating how damage detection proteins gives rise to mutated DNA replication, leading to increased cancer risk.
  • Harry F. Noller, Director of the Center for Molecular Biology of RNA at the University of California, Santa Cruz, for connecting the dots between RNA’s central role in the ribosome and the origin of life.
  • Roeland Nusse, Professor of Developmental Biology at Stanford University and Investigator at Howard Hughes Medical Institute, for his work exploring the Wnt gene pathway and its implications in cancer.
  • Yoshinori Ohsumi, Honorary Professor, Institute of Innovative Research at Tokyo Institute of Technology, for his investigation of the process of autophagy, a means by which cells recycle their own components to create nutrients.
  • Huda Yahya Zoghbi, Professor in the Departments of Pediatrics, Molecular and Human Genetics, Neurology and Neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine, for her work discovering the biological underpinnings of spinocerebellar ataxia and Rett syndrome.

Fundamental Physics winners

The three recipients will share a single $3 million award recognizing their meaningful advances in string theory, quantum field theory, and quantum gravity.

  • Joseph Polchinski, Professor in the Department of Physics and Member of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara
  • Andrew Strominger, Director of the Center for the Fundamental Laws of Nature at Harvard University
  • Cumrun Vafa, Donner Professor of Science in the Department of Physics at Harvard University

Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics 

Originally announced earlier in 2016, these three winners will share a single $1 million prize, with $2 million divided among their 1,012 members of their research group. The special award, which “can be conferred at any time in recognition of an extraordinary scientific achievement,” recognizes the team’s collaborative research on gravitational waves and its implications for physics and astronomy.

  • Ronald Drever, Professor of Physics Emeritus at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena
  • Kip Thorne, Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena 
  • Rainer Weiss, Professor of Physics Emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge

Mathematics winner (single $3 million prize)

Jean Bourgain, IBM Von Neumann Professor in the Department of Mathematics at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, for his many contributions to high-dimensional geometry, number theory, and many other theoretical contributions.

Breakthrough Junior Challenge

A final prize, the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, honors students with an “original science video [that] brings to life an important scientific or mathematical idea or principle,” to the tune of $250,000, with additional prize money for their teachers and schools.

  • Deanna See (age 17, Singapore): “Superbugs! And Our Race Against Resistance”

  • Antonella Masini (age 18, Peru): “Quantum Entanglement”

Since its inception in 2012, the Breakthrough Prize has awarded nearly $200 million in sum, culled from foundations from the founders of Google, 23andme, Facebook, and DST Global:

“Founded by Sergey Brin and Anne Wojcicki, Yuri and Julia Milner, and Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, the Breakthrough Prize aims to celebrate science and scientists and generate excitement about the pursuit of science as a career. The prizes are funded by the Brin Wojcicki Foundation; Mark Zuckerberg’s fund at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation; and the Milner Global Foundation.”

These aren’t the kind of numbers researchers are used to. As Silicon Valley charges ahead in private scientific pursuits ranging from bold to outright reckless, the legacy scientific community trudges patiently along, just as it always has. Circumventing all of those pesky grant applications and pleas for government funding, the Breakthrough Prize seeks to pump some rocket fuel into meaningful science research being done the old fashioned way.

Much like the Oscars and other less cerebral award shows, past Breakthrough Prize recipients coalesce into a committee to select future winners. Today’s ceremony will air live on the National Geographic Channel at 10 p.m. eastern. Fox will re-air a condensed version of the ceremony on Sunday, December 18 in the 7 p.m. evening slot.

Featured Image: Taylor Hatmaker