Sunday, December 04, 2016

$25 Million in Breakthrough Prizes Given in Science and Math

The biggest prize payday in science came around again Sunday evening when the Breakthrough Foundation handed out more than $25 million in its annual prizes to more than a thousand physicists, life scientists and mathematicians.
This year’s winners include five molecular biologists who won $3 million each for work in genetics and cell biology, one mathematician, a trio of string theorists who split one $3 million physics prize, and another 1,015 physicists working on the LIGO gravitational wave detector split a special $3 million physics prize. In addition, there were six smaller “New Horizons” prizes totaling $600,000 for 10 “early career” researchers, and a pair of high school students won $400,000 apiece for making science videos.
The Breakthrough Foundation was founded by Sergey Brin of Google; Anne Wojcicki of 23andMe; Jack Ma of Alibaba and his wife, Cathy Zhang; Yuri Milner, an internet entrepreneur, and his wife, Julia Milner; and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and his wife, Priscilla Chan.
It sprang from Mr. Milner’s decision in 2012 to hand out $3 million apiece to nine theoretical physicists, in the belief that physicists are equal to rock stars and deserve to be paid and celebrated like them. Over the years, as more sponsors have joined, the prizes have spread to life sciences and mathematics. The winners each year are chosen by a committee of previous winners.
For the last few years, the awards have been given out in an Oscar-style ceremony held at NASA’s Ames Research Center, with a variety of Hollywood celebrities, who this year include Morgan Freeman, Alicia Keys and Jeremy Irons.
Continue reading the main story

Fundamental Physics

There were two physics prizes awarded this year.
In May, Mr. Milner, the founder of the Breakthrough initiative, announced a special $3 million prize to the LIGO (for Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) experiment, which detected gravitational waves from colliding black holes last year. A third of the money will be split among the three leaders of the experiment, Ronald W.P. Drever, Kip S. Thorne and Rainer Weiss. The remainder of the award money will be split among the other 1,012 scientists on the team.
Ron Drever, Kip Thorne and Rainer WeissCreditBreakthrough Prize, Gary Cameron/Reuters, Breakthrough Prize
In a return to the way it originally was, the regular Breakthrough prize this year is going to a trio of theorists who have made serious advances in string theory, the alleged but still unproven theory of everything, and what it might mean for black holes and the universe. They are Andrew Stromingerand Cumrun Vafa from Harvard, and Joseph Polchinski of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Cumrun Vafa, Andrew Strominger and Joseph Polchinski CreditBreakthrough Prize
According to string theory, all the forces and particles of nature are composed of tiny little wriggling strings. In 1995, Dr. Polchinski showed that the theory also contains objects of two dimensions or more, called “branes,” short for membranes. This led to a whole new branch of cosmology, in which branes could be island universes floating in an extra-dimensional space like leaves in a fish tank, colliding and otherwise interacting with each other through a higher dimension.
In a celebrated calculation in 1996, Dr. Strominger and Dr. Vafa used string theory to compute the information content, or entropy, of a black hole. Their result verified a prediction made by Stephen Hawking using more approximate methods that black holes would leak radiation and eventually explode.


In a career spanning four decades, Jean Bourgain, a mathematician at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., has published, on average, 10 papers a year, tackling some of the hardest problems in a range of mathematical fields.
Jean BourgainCreditBreakthrough Prize
Some recent work includes a “decoupling theorem” — a sort of very abstract generalization of Pythagorean’s theorem applied to oscillating waves like light or radio waves. While Pythagoras merely showed how the length of the two shorter sides of a right triangle are related to the longer hypotenuse, the decoupling theorem proven by Dr. Bourgain and Ciprian Demeter of Indiana University shows similar relationships in the superposition of waves.

Life Sciences

Stephen J. Elledge, 60, is a professor of genetics and medicine at Harvard Medical School and the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. He received the breakthrough prize for research explaining how “cells sense and respond to damage in their DNA and providing insights into the development and treatment of cancer.”
Stephen ElledgeCreditBreakthrough Prize
Dr. Elledge has described DNA as being constantly under attack but having the ability — he calls it a sort of chemical intelligence — to monitor its own integrity and activate various defense mechanisms.
His research interests range far and wide. In 2015, he and his team reported that they had developed a test that, using less than a drop of blood, could reveal nearly every virus a person had ever been exposed to. Other scientists saw vast potential in the test, suggesting it could be used to track patterns of disease across populations and to learn more about how viruses, and the body’s immune response to them, contribute to chronic diseases and cancer.
Last year, Dr. Elledge won another major prize: the Lasker Award, which is often described as the American Nobel.
Harry F. Noller helped unravel the structure of ribosomes and identify the importance of RNA to their mechanics. Ribosomes are like factories that assemble proteins within a cell. They look like a tangled mess of rubber bands and coiled wires. But by decoding their twists and folds, scientists can better understand how the genetic code gets translated.
Harry F. Noller CreditBreakthrough Prize
Dr. Noller is a biochemist and director of the Center for Molecular Biology of RNA at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He and his colleagues used X-ray crystallography to obtain the first image of the ribosome’s molecular structure. His work also helped show that ribosomes are ribozymes, a type of RNA molecule that can facilitate chemical reactions. In this case, the ribozymes stitch amino acids together to build proteins.
Roeland Nusse, professor of developmental biology at Stanford University and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, helped discover the first Wnt gene in 1982. The gene is part of the larger Wnt signaling pathway, which plays a crucial role in the development of embryos, stem cells, bone growth and the progression of cancer. It is also critical for cell-to-cell communication in adults and developing embryos.
Roeland NusseCreditBreakthrough Prize
The Wnt signaling pathway is found in every branch of the animal kingdom. It is involved in things as diverse as setting off breast cancer in mice and helping orchestrate the body plan of fruit flies. It has become an important part in many aspects of biology because the molecular cascade it sets off affects the growth of the entire ecosystem of the body.
Dr. Huda Zoghbi, a professor of neurology at Baylor College of Medicine, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator and director of the Jan and Dan Duncan Neurological Research Institute at Texas Children’s Hospital, discovered that a mutation to a gene known as SCA1 causes Spinocerebellar ataxia, a neurodegenerative disorder. It can rob people of their control over their hands, legs and speech. An estimated 150,000 people in the United States currently suffer from the disease. There is no known cure and it ultimately is fatal.
Dr. Huda ZoghbiCreditBreakthrough Prize
But insight into its inner workings may provide a way to combat its progression. Dr. Zoghbi’s findings have helped provide the groundwork to fighting the disease.
Dr. Zoghbi also helped uncover the culprit behind another neurodegenerative disease, Rett syndrome. This crippling condition mostly affects young girls and is often fatal. There are fewer than 1,000 cases a year in the United States. Her team searched for the cause behind the malady for 16 years, eventually identifying it as a mutation in the gene MECP2. By identifying the gene, she also found that it plays a part in other neurological disorders, providing a starting point to fighting the diseases.
Yoshinori Ohsumi, a cell biologist and honorary professor from the Institute of Innovative Research at Tokyo Institute of Technology in Japan, helped pioneer our understanding of how cells recycle themselves — known as autophagy — through his research with yeast in the 1990s.
Yoshinori Ohsumi CreditBreakthrough Prize
Organelles, proteins and other molecules inside the cell are constantly becoming damaged or worn out, especially as the cell divides. If too much rubbish builds up, it can become toxic and kill the cell. Autophagy is also a tool that the cell uses to refuel itself if it is starving.
During autophagy, the cell produces internal garbage bags called autophagosomes that capture waste. The autophagosomes are sealed by a double membrane that keeps in the junk. They then fuse with organelles called lysosomes, which carry enzymes that help dissolve whatever is inside.
Researchers think that failures in autophagy could contribute to Type 2 diabetes and certain types of cancer, as well as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. They also think it could help us better understand the process of aging.
This year, Dr. Ohsumi won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for illuminating the importance of cell cannibalism.

New Horizons

In addition to the big $3 million prizes, there were six $100,000 New Horizons prizes – half in physics and half in mathematics. The young physics winners are: Asimina Arvanitaki of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Ontario, Canada; Peter Graham of Stanford and Surjeet Rajendran of the University of California, Berkeley, who split one prize; Simone Giombi of Princeton and Xi Yin of Harvard split another prize; and Frans Pretorius of Princeton.
In mathematics, the New Horizons winners were Mohammed Abouzaid of Columbia University; Hugo Duminil-Copin of the University of Geneva; and Benjamin Elias of the University of Oregon and Geordie Williamson of Kyoto University.

Federal Officials to Explore Different Route for Dakota Pipeline


Theresa Sandoval, of the Red Willow Tribe in northern New Mexico, bringing firewood back to her North Dakota camp early Sunday morning. Credit Alyssa Schukar for The New York Times

Federal officials announced on Sunday that they would not approve permits for construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline beneath a dammed section of the Missouri River that tribes say sits near sacred burial sites.

The decision is a victory for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of protesters camped near the construction site who have opposed the project because they said would it threaten a water source and cultural sites. Federal officials had given the protesters until tomorrow to leave a campsite near the construction site.

In a statement on Sunday, the Department of the Army’s assistant secretary for Civil Works, Jo-Ellen Darcy, said that the decision was based on a need to explore alternate routes for the pipeline crossing.

“Although we have had continuing discussion and exchanges of new information with the Standing Rock Sioux and Dakota Access, it’s clear that there’s more work to do,” Ms. Darcy said. “The best way to complete that work responsibly and expeditiously is to explore alternate routes for the pipeline crossing.”


The Conflicts Along 1,172 Miles of the Dakota Access Pipeline

A detailed map showing the Dakota Access Pipeline that has led to months of clashes near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in North Dakota.

The consideration of alternative routes “would be best accomplished through an Environmental Impact Statement with full public input and analysis,” Ms Darcy said in a statement.

The Obama administration had blocked construction of that section since September, and in November President Obama, revealed that the Army Corps of Engineers was considering an alternative route for the project.

Dave Archambault II, the chairman of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, expressed gratitude for “the courage it took on the part of President Obama, the Army Corps, the Department of Justice and the Department of the Interior to take steps to correct the course of history and to do the right thing.”

Tribal officials had criticized the route because of the potential damage to the tribe’s drinking water and that it would disrupt sacred lands.

The company building the pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners of Dallas, has said that it was unwilling to reroute the project.

Austrians Appear to Reject Far-Right Candidate for President

The presidential candidate Norbert Hofer in Pinkafeld, Austria, on Sunday. His Freedom Party contested a runoff election in May that he lost by just 31,000 votes. CreditLeonhard Foeger/Reuters
VIENNA — In a vote closely watched across Europe, Austria’s voters appeared to have dealt a defeat on Sunday to a right-wing populist bidding to become the first far-right head of state elected in Europe since World War II.
Projections on ORF state television based on initial vote counts minutes after polls closed suggested that Alexander Van der Bellen, 72, a former economics professor and Green party leader, had a strong lead.
The projections showed Mr. Van der Bellen taking 53.6 percent of the vote, while his right-wing challenger, Norbert Hofer, had captured 46.4 percent.
Heinz-Christian Strache, the leader of the far-right Freedom Party, seemed to acknowledge defeat when he spoke to Austrian radio and congratulated Mr. Van der Bellen. Mr. Hofer’s campaign manager, Herbert Kickl, also congratulated Mr. Van der Bellen.
If the projected numbers hold, Austria will have beaten back a populist wave that has included Britain’s vote in June to leave the European Union and the United States’ election of Donald J. Trump as president.
The Austrian presidential election, normally a sleepy, provincial contest for a largely ceremonial post, had been closely watched for its potential to send yet another jolt to political establishments in a year when far-right populist forces have advanced in Europe and the United States.


How Far Is Europe Swinging to the Right?

Right-wing parties have been achieving electoral success in a growing number of nations.
The election was widely viewed as a test of the anti-migrant and particularly anti-Muslim forces that have ridden a populist path to power in Hungary and Poland and have gained strength in France and even in Germany, widely seen as the only major Western country so far resisting the trend away from liberal democracy.
Mr. Van der Bellen’s supporters were predictably jubilant that he appeared to have increased his share of the vote since a runoff election in May which he narrowly win by 31,000 votes.
“He built a broad coalition,” said Alexandra Föderl-Schmid, editor in chief of the liberal daily Der Standard. Now, she said, Austrians will expect Mr. Van der Bellen to mend the rifts that appeared during months of bitter campaigning.
Mr. Van der Bellen had appealed to Austrians to vote for reason over extremes. Mr. Hofer, who campaigned on an “Austria First!” slogan, said he wanted to lead a country that was secure “for our children and grandchildren,” playing on fears of the tide of migrants and refugees that have entered Europe.
Several analysts and observers had predicted that the populist wave would propel the anti-migrant, anti-Muslim and eurosceptic program of Mr. Hofer into power in Austria. But first projections and exit polls suggested that Mr. Van der Bellen had a clear lead.
Despite the drawn-out process, voter interest and emotions have run strong and high. Most observers expect a tight race, possibly decided on Monday only after absentee ballots are counted. Some 6.3 million Austrians ages 16 and over are entitled to vote.
Austrians were shocked last April when neither of those parties, the center-left and the center-right, made the presidential runoff. A new parliamentary election, analysts here say, could then open the way for Mr. Hofer’s far-right party to run the government.


Europe’s Rising Far Right: A Guide to the Most Prominent Parties

Amid a migrant crisis and discontent with the European Union, many far-right parties have achieved electoral success. Here are eight of the most noteworthy.
An array of establishment figures lined up behind Mr. Van der Bellen, but Mr. Hofer garnered support from mainstream conservatives in the People’s Party, which declined to throw its weight behind the former Greens leader.
The presidential contest has been the most hard-fought since 1986, when Austrians elected Kurt Waldheim, a former United Nations secretary general, despite revelations that he had concealed his service in Hitler’s armed forces close to the sites of Nazi atrocities in the Balkans during World War II.
In an interview last month, Mr. Hofer made it clear that he thought the American election had bolstered support for his Freedom Party.
Even Mr. Hofer’s opponents seemed resigned in recent days, fearing that Mr. Trump’s victory, in particular, was influencing the outcome here.
Ilona Kamberi, 27, works at the agriculture ministry in Vienna and was part of a program bringing young, politically engaged Austrians to a meeting of politicians, journalists and academics last week in Lech, a ski resort in western Austria.
Ms. Kamberi came to Vienna 13 years ago from Kosovo and is Muslim. At first, she said, she thought people had to have some special quirk to vote for Mr. Hofer. Now, “even some of my friends are going to vote for him.”
In the modern world, “you can win simply by saying anti-Muslim things,” Ms. Kamberi said. And Mr. Trump has had an effect, she added. “These people feel reinforced in their opinion when the superpower does it too.”

Saturday, December 03, 2016

Emily A. Sellars

Does emigration enable or undermine political reform back home? I provide new theory and evidence on this relationship using evidence from Mexico. In the first section, I examine the impact of emigration on land redistribution. Mexico’s agrarian reform began during a period of high emigration, but migration flows were halted by the US Stock Market Crash in 1929. Using a fixed-effects approach, I compare the time path of agrarian redistribution in high- and low-migration areas before and after the exogenous shock provided by the Depression. I show that reform lagged in high-emigration areas prior to 1929 and that these patterns reversed after 1930. Drawing on an original formal model of migration and collective action and on archival research on the agrarian movement, I trace these outcomes to the role of emigration in relieving political pressure during the 1920s and to the importance of repatriates to the agrarian movement post-1930. I provide further evidence of the emigration “exit valve” effect using data from the US Bracero Program (1945-1964) and from El Salvador before and after the Soccer War of 1969.

 In the second section, I investigate the relationship between emigration and local governance. I construct a simple formal model to highlight three mechanisms linking emigration with community cooperation: the wealth effects of remittances, the demographic effects of community absence, and the values effects of past migration experience. I test the implications of the model using multi-level data from the Mexican Family Life Survey and qualitative data collected through field research in 19 villages in three Mexican states. Using a research design to control for potential reverse causality between migration and governance, I find evidence that emigration reduces community cooperation but has varying impacts on local public service provision and use. I trace these differences to variation in how services are funded and provided and to whether private substitute services exist.

Labor Scarcity, Land Tenure and the Persistence of History: Evidence from Mexico

In a joint multi-paper project with Jennifer Alix-Garcia at the University of Wisconsin, we examine the long-run consequences of the sixteenth-century population collapse of colonial Mexico due to disease. While Mexico had been densely populated at the time of the Conquest, the indigenous population fell by between 70 and 90% during the first century of colonial rule. In the first paper, we link the collapse to the emergence of highly unequal land tenure patterns in Mexico. We posit that land concentration, enabled by depopulation in the early colonial period, gave the elite a powerful lever through which they could control both land and labor markets in the country through the early twentieth century. Using data on the number of individuals paying tribute to the Spanish Crown in the 16th and 17th centuries and measures of land concentration just before the Mexican Revolution, we show that higher proportions of the rural population lived on elite estates in 1900 in areas where the indigenous population declined more precipitously between 1570 and 1650. Our identification strategy exploits subnational variation in the climate shocks associated with a major disease outbreak in the late sixteenth century. These climate variables were constructed using data derived from tree-ring chronologies from the North American Drought Atlas (Cook and Krusic 2004). We illustrate the historical persistence of these effects by linking the collapse to the redistribution of land through Mexico’s twentieth-century Agrarian Reform, which determined the current land distribution of the country. This finding identifies an important channel through which the collapse continues to shape development outcomes today.

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