Last night (Nov. 8), celebrities including Christina Aguilera, Russell Crowe, and Hilary Swank joined some of the US tech industry’s most powerful names on the red carpet, all in the name of particle physics.
The Breakthrough Prize, now in its fifth year, was created by tech industry bigwigs to promote the hard sciences to the public, by dressing it up in a tux and calling the paparazzi.
The prizes’ internet industry founders Mark Zuckerberg and Pricilla Chan, Sergey Brin, Anne Wojcicki, Jack Ma and Cathy Zhang, and Yuri and Julia Milner awarded a total of $21.9 million on Sunday night to a group of mathematicians, geneticists, neuroscientists, and physicists who might otherwise be unknown outside of their respective fields.
Also called the “Oscars of Science,” the event was held this year at a NASA research center in Mountainview, California. It featured Seth MacFarlane as the host (sample joke from last year: “The Breakthrough Prize is like other award shows, but without so much thanking God.”), and Pharrell as the musical guest. “To me, science is a continuous journey for understanding all that is,” he told the audience of CEOs, scientists, and movie stars.
Winners this year included:
- Ian Agol (University of California, Berkeley), a mathematician who devised a new framework to describe the properties of “3-manifolds,” aka three-dimensional shapes.
- Karl Deisseroth (Stanford University) and Edward S. Boyden (MIT), whose research in the emerging field of optogenetics helps scientists discover the brain’s relationship with emotions.
- John Hardy (University College London), who identified the gene believed to cause Alzheimer’s disease.
- Helen Hobbs (University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center), who identified a genetic mutation that leads to unusually low cholesterol levels.
- Svante Pääbo (Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology), who constructed the genome of a neanderthal by analyzing a fossil specimen of its toe.
- 1,337 physicists from Japan and China who collectively researched neutrinos, near-massless particles that can pass through matter and change its shape.
National Geographic broadcast the event live and streamed it on its website, where it also posted photos of its red carpet attendees. Maybe someday its prizewinners will be just as famous.