Science and math shine at 2016 Breakthrough Prize awards | News | Palo Alto Online |


Science and math shine at 2016 Breakthrough Prize awards

Stanford professor awarded $3 million Breakthrough Prize in life science while two others won New Horizons in Physics prizes

It's not often you get to see actor B. J. Novak, tech investor Yuri Milner and former CIA director David Patraeus in the same room together.

Walking down the red carpet just outside of Hangar One at Moffett Field, the unlikely trio was just a sample of some of the big-name celebrities who showed up in Mountain View Sunday night to support some of the world's top scientists.

Actors and actresses, television producers, singers and entrepreneurs all made an appearance at the third annual Breakthrough Prize event, which was started by high-powered Silicon Valley investors and CEOs to celebrate researchers and professors for big advancements in life sciences, physics and mathematics.

Attendees included singers Lana Del Ray and Christina Aguilera, actresses Hilary Swank, Kate Hudson and Lily Collins, media mogul Rupert Murdoch and actors Kumail Nanjiani and Martin Starr from the HBO show "Silicon Valley."

Local tech executives Anne Wojcicki, Mark Zuckerburg and Sergey Brin also made an appearance on the red carpet and on stage at the main event.

The ceremony is billed as an Academy Awards for scientists, and many of the laureates got to experience the celebrity life for an evening, walking down the red carpet and getting bombarded by flash photography and questions from reporters. Adding to the glitz, $21.9 million in prize money was handed out to winners.

Conflating the glitzy Hollywood world with the academic sciences certainly has its purpose, according to this year's host, Seth McFarlane.

Although scientific breakthroughs and discoveries are moving at a breakneck speed today, McFarlane said people still show a wary "distrust for science," fearing vaccinations and denying climate change.

"We're here tonight to celebrate ... the smartest people in the world. Or as Donald Trump calls you, 'egghead idiots,'" McFarlane said, taking a jab at the Republican presidential contender.

Despite the distrust, new discoveries and achievements in science continue to pave the way for a bright future, McFarlane told the crowd of scientists and celebrities. He pointed out that in recent months, surgeons have been able to fit a cancer patient with a 3D-printed sternum and ribs, and scientists have discovered a star that emits strange "repeated dimming" light patterns, which he said could have huge implications.

Liquid water has also been discovered on Mars, McFarlane said, "which is exciting, because we don't even have that in California."

Guest speakers included a message from astronaut Scott Kelly, who has spent nearly a year in space to see how long-duration space flight affects the human body, as well as opening remarks from Stephen Hawking. Actor Russell Crowe also made an appearance, praising the work of the late mathematician John Nash.

Scientists were praised at the event for their work in medical science, finding new ways of curing heart disease and making strides in the relatively new field of optogenetics -- research that will help scientists better understand how neurological diseases like Parkinson's and Alzheimer's develops in the brain.

Six scientists were awarded the $3 million 2016 Breakthrough Prize in fundamental physics for studying neutrinos, small particles with very distinct properties. The big discovery is that there are three different types of neutrinos that can "oscillate," or swap, into one type or another. The reveals that the molecules do, in fact, have a finite mass.

Researchers who received recognition for their discovery of neutrino oscillation include Yifang Wang, Kam-Biu Luk, Atsuto Suzuki, Koichiro Nishikawa, Arthur B. McDonald, Takaaki Kajita and Yoichiro Suzuk.

Two Stanford University physicists received New Horizons in Physics prizes. Xiao-Liang Qi, associate professor of physics, got a $100,000 prize for her "outstanding contributions to condensed matter physics, especially involving the use of topology to understand new states of matter," according to a press release. And assistant professor of physics Leonardo Senatore was honored for his "outstanding contributions to theoretical cosmology," and will also receive a $100,000 prize.

Added on this year was the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, where students ages 13 to 18 were asked to submit a video explaining a challenging or important concept in math, science or physics. On the red carpet, Khan Academy founder Sal Khan told the Voice that the Breakthrough Prize isn't just about praising the scientists of the world, it's about motivating students as well. The inclusion of the junior challenge was one way to do that, and it attracted about 2,000 submissions from students in 86 countries.

"It's about getting the next generation excited about math and science," Khan said.

The winner of this year's Breakthrough Junior Prize was 18-year-old Ryan Chester, a senior at North Royalton High School in Ohio who did a video explaining, in layman's terms, how the special theory of relativity works. Chester won a $250,000 scholarship, as well as a $100,000 donation to his high school's science program.

Winners of the $3 million Breakthrough Prize:

Karl Deisseroth, professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford, and Edward Boyden received a Breakthrough Prize award for their work in optogenetics, a field where genetically modified cells in the body can be manipulated with light. The result is that certain cells in the brain can be turned on and off using light, giving scientists a clear picture of cause-and-effect relationships between neural activity and how it affects behavior. The research could yield new ways to treat neurological diseases from depression and blindness to Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.

Helen Hobbs, a researcher at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, made a breakthrough discovery when she developed drugs to significantly reduce blood cholesterol, which helps to fend off heart and liver disease. Her research focused on mutations in genes that not only increase susceptibility to heart disease, but also ones that prevent development of the disease. It turns out that a mutation present in roughly 1 in 50 African Americans activates a gene called PCSK9, which enhances the clearance of cholesterol in the blood. This research was used to develop two drugs that can drastically reduce blood cholesterol levels.

Svante Paabo is a Swedish biologist, and has pioneered the field of paleogenetics studying the DNA of ancient humans. More specifically, Paabo's research has led to him studying extinct human relatives, like the Neanderthals, and how their genome matches up with humans. Recently discovered fossils gave Paabo and other researchers enough material to reconstruct the entire genome of a Neanderthal.

John Hardy, a professor at the University College Institute of Neurology in London, has been working to unravel the causes of Alzheimer's disease for decades. Through working with a family suffering from the disease, he was able to isolate a gene mutation in something called the Amyloid Precursor Protein gene, developing a new hypothesis for how the disease develops. The theory is now the dominant model for early onset Alzheimer's disease. At the awards ceremony, Hardy insisted that much of the credit has to go to families who are willing to step forward and aid in the research of the deadly brain disease.

Ian Agol is an associate professor at Berkeley, and made strides in the field of geometric topology, studying the way three-dimensional objects are put together. By manipulating these objects, cutting them up into pieces and how they fit together, he was able to solve topographic questions left unanswered since 1982.

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15 people like this
Posted by cheeseguy
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 10, 2015 at 6:51 am

26 photos of movie stars and others that you really have to question (several photos of David Petraeus, whose most recent "breakthrough" was awarded in the field of ethics and illegalities) and not one photo of the Stanford University prize winner??????

11 people like this
Posted by Hahaha
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 10, 2015 at 10:25 am

This is funny. None of these three are particularly admirable people. They certainly do not deserve to be held up as icons.
Yes, Milner is unbelievably wealthy, and that blinds people.
The others are not exactly pillars of the community!!!

What about more praise for and pictures of THE SCIENTISTS? That is what the story should be, and is supposed to be about--not celluloid heroes!

2 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Nov 10, 2015 at 5:06 pm

@Haha, in my day most scientists would rather be in the lab than hobnobbing with glitterati. Very few sought the limelight. I suspect even the million-dollar winners here regarded this as an onerous chore, with the tux and everything.

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