Mark Zuckerberg and Yuri Milner speak onstage during the 2017 Breakthrough Prize at NASA Ames Research Center on December 4, 2016 in Mountain View, California. (Photo by Kimberly White/Getty Images for Breakthrough Prize)

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — The nerds of science had a rare night in the spotlight on Sunday when the glitterati of Silicon Valley and Hollywood joined forces to honor work in such heady subjects such as brain science, the origins of life and gravitational waves.

The Breakthrough Prizes, now in their fifth year, are the richest science awards on earth. They are worth $3 million to each winner, more than double the $1.2 million that comes with the Nobel Prizes.

The awards, which total $25 million this year, are one of a number of mega-prizes for research that have been launched in recent years by wealthy donors. They are funded by Russian tech entrepreneur and investor Yuri Milner and his wife, Julia Milner; Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan; Google's Sergey Brin and his former wife, Anne Wojcicki of 23andMe; and Alibaba's Jack Ma and his wife, Cathy Zhang. The idea is that the money and celebrities will make science sexier and inspire more young people to choose it as a career.

“Everything you see around you and me in the world was conceived by scientists some time ago — everything that was built by us as a civilization,” Milner said in an interview before the event. And yet, he said, “in our society, science is not appreciated enough.”

“Intellectual achievement is recognized to a much smaller extent to physical achievement,” he added. “I think, and my co-founders agree, this is really very much out of balance and we need to bring it more into balance.”

This year's awards, selected by a committee of previous winners, include five in the life sciences, one in fundamental physics and one in mathematics. There's also a special prize that will be shared among the three leaders and 1,012 team members of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory in Louisiana and Washington state who discovered the existence of gravitational waves — described as ripples in space-time produced by colliding black holes.


Baseball player Alex Rodriguez, Breakthrough Prize winner and Nobel Laureate Yoshinori Ohsumi and CEO of Rakuten Hiroshi Mikitani. (Photo by Kelly Sullivan/Getty Images for Breakthrough Prize)

As in previous years, there's a lot of hope that the life sciences projects will have applications for medical treatments in the future. One award winner, Japanese biologist Yoshinori Ohsumi, won a Nobel Prize this year for elucidating a key mechanism in the human body’s defense system called autophagy that involves degrading and recycling parts of cells. It plays an important role in cancer, Type 2 diabetes and even birth defects from the Zika virus.

Another award recipient this year is Harry Noller, 77, a molecular biology professor at the University of California at Santa Cruz, whose name has come up several years in a row as someone who might be on the shortlist for the Nobel Prize for his work on the critical importance of RNA, which carries out commands in all living cells.

Many believe his discoveries will be critical to our fight against “super bugs” resistant to antibiotics. But it's the grander implications of his research for how life came to be on our planet that has brought a lot of excitement about his work.

“You can never prove how life originated but what we can now wonder is, 'Is there a plausible way that life arose from nonliving inorganic chemistry?' And it’s starting to look like you can connect the dots between the periodic table, the atoms available to us in the universe, and life as an emergent property of matter,” Noller said.

Huda Yahya Zoghbi, 62, the only female award winner this year, is known for her work in neurological disease. She helped discover the genetic causes and mechanisms for two rare brain diseases known as spinocerebellar ataxia and Rett syndrome. Her work in spinocerebellar ataxia, which is caused by a gene, affects balance and coordination and is fatal, is already being built on to bring insights into Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. Zoghbi's research into Rett syndrome, which occurs in girls who appear healthy at birth but then lose skills and develop seizures to the point where daily life is difficult, has provided insights into autism and intellectual disabilities.

“Sometimes rare diseases can really teach you something that's very helpful for more common diseases whose development and treatment has been elusive,” Zoghbi said.

Actress Sienna Miller and Breakthrough Prize Co-Founder Yuri Milner speak onstage during the 2017 Breakthrough Prize. (Photo by Kimberly White/Getty Images for Breakthrough Prize)

The Breakthrough Prizes are the most generous among the big-money science awards that have been founded in recent years, but the others are also very lucrative. They include Britain's corporate-sponsored Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering (about $1.5 million) and the Tang Prize for sustainable development, biopharmaceutical science, Chinese studies and law (about $1.3 million).

The awards, which are making millionaires out of researchers, have been received with some ambivalence from the scientific community. While many have expressed gratitude to the philanthropists for recognizing the importance of science, others have questioned the premise of the prizes.

Some have suggested that the money would be better spent going directly to labs rather than financing a lavish awards event modeled after the Oscars and featuring celebrities such as Morgan Freeman, Alicia Keys, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Vin Diesel and others who were scheduled to be in attendance on Sunday at the NASA Ames Research Center.

Others say the prizes bestow riches on scientists who are already well-known and well-funded. (The Breakthrough Prize group has introduced a junior achievement award and did give out six prizes for early career achievement in physics and math this year.) Others have said they're uncomfortable with the idea of the wealthy trying to “buy” the prestige of the Nobels.

But those who think that might want to take a closer look at the history of the Nobels. When they were first awarded in 1901, they attracted a lot of attention for precisely the same reason as the Breakthrough Prizes: for the huge cash award being given out. “In the early days, it was worth about 20 years of an academic salary,” Wired magazine noted, “and was the prototypical 'genius award' that allowed scholars to freely pursue their interests.”

If we fast-forward another century, it's possible the Breakthrough Prizes will be looked at in a similar light.

Below is a complete list of this year's Breakthrough Prize laureates:

Stephen Elledge. (Courtesy of Breakthrough Prize) Elledge. (Courtesy of Breakthrough Prize)

Stephen J. Elledge, professor of genetics and medicine in the Department of Genetics at Harvard Medical School 

Award: Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences

Elucidated how eukaryotic cells sense and respond to damage in their DNA, providing insights into the development and treatment of cancer.

 

Noller. (Courtesy of Breakthrough Prize)

Harry F. Noller, director of the Center for Molecular Biology of RNA at the University of California at Santa Cruz

Award: Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences

Discovered the centrality of RNA in forming the active centers of the ribosome, the fundamental machinery of protein synthesis in all cells, thereby connecting modern biology to the origin of life and also explaining how many natural antibiotics disrupt protein synthesis.

 

Roeland Nusse. (Courtesy of Breakthrough Prize) Nusse. (Courtesy of Breakthrough Prize)

Roeland Nusse, professor of developmental biology at Stanford University

Award: Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences

Pioneered research on the Wnt pathway, one of the crucial intercellular signaling systems in development, cancer and stem cell biology.

 

Ohsumi. (Courtesy of Breakthrough Prize)

Yoshinori Ohsumi, honorary professor, Institute of Innovative Research at Tokyo Institute of Technology

Award: Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences

Elucidated autophagy, the recycling system that cells use to generate nutrients from their own inessential or damaged components.

 

Zoghbi. (Courtesy of Breakthrough Prize)

Huda Yahya Zoghbi, professor in the departments of pediatrics, molecular and human genetics, neurology and neuroscience at Baylor College of Medicine

Award: Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences

Awarded for discoveries of the genetic causes and biochemical mechanisms of spinocerebellar ataxia and Rett syndrome, findings that have provided insight into the pathogenesis of neurodegenerative and neurological diseases.

 

Joseph Polchinski, professor in the department of physics and member of the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California at Santa Barbara
Andrew Strominger, director of the Center for the Fundamental Laws of Nature at Harvard University
Cumrun Vafa, Donner Professor of science in the department of physics at Harvard University

Award: Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics

Polchinski, Strominger and Vafa are awarded for transformative advances in quantum field theory, string theory and quantum gravity.

 

Ronald Drever, professor of physics emeritus at the California Institute of Technology,
Kip Thorne, Feynman Professor of theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology
Rainer Weiss, professor of physics emeritus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Award: Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics (The three will share a $1 million prize; and 1,012 of their team members will share $2 million.)

Drever, Thorne and Weiss were awarded for their observation of gravitational waves, opening new horizons in astronomy and physics.

 

Jean Bourgain, IBM von Neumann Professor in the department of mathematics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton

Award: Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics

Awarded for his multiple transformative contributions to analysis, combinatorics, partial differential equations, high-dimensional geometry and number theory.

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