For anyone who has ever said that all the STEM professions need is something to make them “cool” in order to attract more young people, look no further than the Breakthrough Prize award ceremony, which took place at NASA’s Hangar One in Silicon Valley Sunday. Seth MacFarlane hosted the awards show that attracted some of the biggest names in Hollywood — Kate Beckinsale, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cameron Diaz, Jon Hamm, and Eddie Redmayne — as presenters. Christina Aguilera even performed. The goal of these new awards, say the organizers, is to add an element of celebrity to the science field.
That means the real stars were the 12 winners of the $3 million Breakthrough Prizes, not the Hollywood stars on stage or the Internet luminaries such as Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin and Jack Ma who are funding the awards. Of the 12 awards handed out, six were awarded in the life science category; five in the math category; and one in physics. In case you’re keeping track – that $3 million payout for scientific genius is twice what they pay for Nobel Prizes and three times what the MacArthur Foundation pays for its “Genius” grants.
Out of the 12 big winners, here are three big ideas – one each in life sciences, math and physics – that are worth keeping an eye on in 2015:
A powerful new technology for editing the human genome
Imagine being able to rewrite the human genome, removing and replacing damaged genes with healthy genes, just by unlocking a common bacterial defense mechanism. That is the essential idea behind the award-winning genome editing tool created by two researchers — Jennifer Doudna, of the University of California-Berkeley, Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; and Emmanuelle Charpentier, of the Helmholtz Center for Infection Research and Umea University. What they found by studying bacterial immunity is that a microbial defense mechanism called Crispr/Cas9 is actually very good at protecting genetic material from invading viruses. An enzyme released by Crispr/Cas9 can snip away the DNA strands of these attacking viruses.
Push on that concept hard enough and you get “a powerful and general technology for editing genomes, with wide-ranging implications across biology and medicine.” In short, this technology might be used for correcting genetic faults at their source — at the level of the gene. Two genetic faults already being explored are those that cause cystic fibrosis and genetic blood disorders. According to Doudna, “We will see this approach being used for disorders caused by single gene defects first of all, but in the longer term, it will become possible to think about other disorders where multiple genes are involved.”
The new math of cryptography, communication and storage
British mathematician Richard Taylor, now affiliated with the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton (the old stomping grounds of Albert Einstein), picked up a prize for “numerous breakthrough results in the theory of automorphic forms.” Taylor has already helped to solve some of the biggest problems in the mathematics field, like the celebrated Fermat’s Last Theorem, which waited more than 350 years for a proof. Now, he is at the forefront of new breakthroughs in mathematics, including proofs of the Taniyama-Weil conjecture, the local Langlands conjecture for general linear groups, and the Sato-Tate conjecture.
All of that may sound hopelessly obscure — a mathematician sitting around a bucolic Ivy League campus doing proofs on number theory — until you realize the amazing real-world applications of this work in mathematics. Writing in the journal of the Institute for Advanced Study in 2012, Taylor explains the real-world applications of number theory: “Today, the theory of modular arithmetic is the basis for the way DVDs store or satellites transmit large amounts of data without corrupting it. Moreover, the cryptographic codes which keep, for example, our banking transactions secure are also closely connected with the theory of modular arithmetic.” In other words, if you want better storage solutions, better cryptography for your online transactions, and better ways to communicate data, you’d better hope for new breakthroughs in number theory.
An expanding universe fueled by dark energy
The Nobel Prize-winning team led by Saul Perlmutter, of the University of California, Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; Brian P. Schmidt, Australian National University; and Adam Riess, Johns Hopkins University and the Space Telescope Science Institute, won the Breakthrough Award in the fundamental physics field for “the most unexpected discovery that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, rather than slowing, as long had been assumed.” Even 25 years after Stephen Hawking considered this concept of a rapidly expanding universe in A Brief History of Time, this is still a mind-blowing idea — it implies that, even after 12 to 14 billion years, whatever caused the creation of the universe — the Big Bang — was so powerful and unlocked so much energy that it’s still going on today. And not just going on — but actually accelerating and becoming faster.
The next question, of course, is what is causing this accelerating expansion. The general consensus among physicists is that “dark energy” is somehow accountable, stretching and pulling galaxies apart. According to scientists, approximately 68 percent of the universe is “dark energy” and 27 percent is “dark matter.” As NASA points out, that means that 95 percent of the universe is still a deep mystery: “The rest — everything on Earth, everything ever observed with all of our instruments, all normal matter — adds up to less than 5 percent of the universe.” That could give research around this “mysterious cosmic force” a new boost.
These Breakthrough Prizes are exciting, even if real-world commercial applications are not immediately available. As the founders of the Breakthrough Prizes point out, it’s really about science for the sake of science. And admit it, it’s already pretty cool that we’re going to get feature films about Alan Turing (“The Imitation Game”) and Stephen Hawking (“The Theory of Everything”) this year. And even cooler that the heartthrob stars of these films – Benedict Cumberbatch and Eddie Redmayne – actually showed up at the Breakthrough Science awards show. In the end, that might be the biggest breakthrough of all – that members of the Hollywood A-list are now looking for A-list stars to play in the worlds of science, tech, mathematics and engineering.