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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.