Instituted in 2012, the first ever Breakthrough Prizes complement the Nobel prize, but exceeds the former with a total prize money of $3 million, making it one of the coveted awards for researchers recognizing breakthroughs in physics, mathematics and life sciences. This year at the awards held in the Silicon Valley, a total of $33 million was distributed among the winners.
Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel instituted the Nobel Prize to honor individuals or groups that have made significant contributions in various categories offering the winners a cash prize of $1.1 million. First started in 2012 by Russian venture capitalist Yuri Milner, who launched the Fundamental Physics Prize awarding the first nine award winners a total of $27 million. Silicon Valley’s elite also contributed to the $3 million awarded to each winner, totaling this years’ prize money to $42 million, divided among 14 scientists at Stanford University.
A reputed venture capitalist – and named one of the best in the world by the 2014 Forbes’ Midas List — Milner believes the Silicon Valley is the right place to celebrate the awards. The scientifically and economically fertile valley is an epicenter of innovation and creativity in science. Milner believes that the awardees are not celebrities, at least according to his perception. The goal of the Breakthrough prize is to draw attention to the significance of fundamental science and reward exemplary work in the field and bringing it to a new audience. The prize money and the interest generated in cutting edge technology piques public interest, securing one of the primary goals; drawing attention to science.
Held at Hangar One, a sprawling former airship station run by NASA in the Valley, Seth Macfarlane took on hosting duties at the Breakthrough Prizes ceremony. Eddie Redmayne, the star reprising Stephen Hawking’s role in the Theory of Everything biopic presented the prize in physics. Benedict Cumberbatch, who is set to bring Alan Turing to life onscreen in The Imitation Game, handed out the prizes for mathematics. Elon Musk, Cameron Diaz, and Kate Beckinsale were among the celebrity presenters at the gala. For seven physicists with a promising future in science, the New Horizons Prizes, three awards worth $100,000 apiece, were announced as an individual set of honors.
Milner wants to recognize scientists – modern society’s unsung heroes – to balance the scales, in terms of the recognition people earn for their contributions. In 2013, Milner managed to make significant additions and bring some respected names in the field of technology on board as his Breakthrough Prize award donors. Initially awarded for Physics, Life Sciences was introduced as a separate category. Alibaba’s Jack Ma, 23andMe’s Anne Wojcicki, Google’s Sergy Brin, and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg have made donations to the Breakthrough Prize, with mathematics added as an additional category in 2014. Zuckerberg says that including mathematics this year is important, since it is the foundation of innovation and technology. Rewarding the stellar insights mathematicians provide is crucial to shaping a better future, according to the co-founder of Facebook.
Leaders and former winners in the respective fields form the jury that decides who wins the $3 million. If Milner’s idea pulls through, once a substantial list of winners over the years forms, the panel will consist of former winners to decide who wins the award the following year or in the near future.The Breakthrough prizes for life sciences this year went to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna for editing genomes with a mechanism bacteria use in immune systems. Adam Riess, Brian Schmidt, and Saul Perlmutter won the award in the Physics category with their serendipitous discovery of the accelerating expansion rate of the universe, contrary to the popular assumption that it was decelerating. Five mathematicians and six scientists shared a total of $33 million this year for their contributions and Milner hopes this prestigious award will find many worthy recipients in time, although celebrating science is what the awards are all about.
By Rathan Paul Harshavardan