REDWOOD CITY, CA — Vin Diesel is a close talker. Plus he mumbles, and takes an unselfconsciously long time to answer questions for someone being gang-interviewed on the red carpet. So when he says things like: “I hope being here is a demonstration, or statement, to all future scientists that their cinematic heroes think that they are heroes,” you get the sense that this action hero didn’t just show up to the 2017 Breakthrough Prizes as a favor to Mark Zuckerberg. It seems the man sincerely idolizes nerds.
Then again, the guy is an actor. But whether he’s in character or not is besides the point. He is here–along with other celebrities like Sienna Miller and Alicia Keys–to transfer some of his star power to recent, important discoveries in the fields of theoretical physics, life sciences, and mathematics. The so-called “Oscars of Science,” held for the past five years in a makeshift hangar at NASA Ames Research Center, are meant as a demonstration, or statement, to society that the most celebrated people on the planet ought to be scientists.
In that frame, the whole night is a delicate balancing act. The celebrities attempt to illuminate–but not outshine–the awardees. So: Vin Diesel waxing reverently about nerdiness; Jeremy Irons pontificating on empirical research’s crucial role in society; Alex Rodriguez on his passion for science, “because it has never been more connected to baseball.” Real, live scientists also walk down the red carpet. The event’s media handlers are diligent about harpooning awardees past and present and roping them into conversations with relevant (i.e., science or technology-focused) media representatives. But how is a member of the press supposed to muscle through an interview with, say, theoretical physics awardee Cumrun Vafa talking about string theory as a way to unify relativity and quantum mechanics when–oh shit, it’s Morgan Freeman!
And because this is Silicon Valley, a tech billionaire like Yuri Milner gets semi-circled with a Brad Pitt-worthy thicket of microrecorders when he approaches the velvet rope. Milner is one of the Breakthrough Prize’s cofounders. Together with his wife Julia, Mark Zuckerberg, Priscilla Chan, Sergey Brin, Anne Wojcicki, Jack Ma, and Cathy Zhang, Milner created the prizes to inspire more awe and respect for the sciences. Since 2012, they have awarded more than 70 $3 million prizes to standout researchers.
And while many of the prizes go to people who have already been recognized by some other award–the Venn diagram of Nobel and Breakthrough laurates has a considerable middle bulge–the Breakthroughs distinguish themselves in several ways. One, they are based in Silicon Valley, the single wealthiest region in America. And the very significant reason number two is that the awards don’t have any restriction on the number of prize recipients. Hence, this year’s special prize for Fundamental Physics went not just to Ronald Drever, Kip Thorne, and Rainer Weiss for their work on the LIGO gravitational wave detection, but the more than 1,000 other researchers who contributed work to that massive project.
And difference number three is the red carpet glamour. Which is no shield from the patina of gloom filming over the fate of science in the wake of the recent election. In each session with reporters, Milner answers some version of the same question: Does he think Donald Trump’s ascendance has heightened the importance of private science funding? “I think the trends we are facing are not something we’ve seen in another administration.” He’s not alone in his worry. Most of the guests coming down the red carpet share their Trump-vs-science concerns.
But all that worry belies one interesting fact: The Breakthrough Prizes do not have a category for climate science, the one family of research Trump has specifically targeted for cut backs. “We’ve decided to focus on the natural sciences, what used to be called the natural philosophies,” says Milner, when asked about whether he and his co-founders would consider creating a Breakthrough Prize category to recognize earth science. “We don’t have plans to go beyond that.”
Past the red carpet is a bar. A sequence of curtains hang from its ceiling, the bottom of each cut like a curve–they are supposed to invoke a gravitational wave. Keep walking, into the main banquet hall. Caterers from Thomas Keller’s French Laundry float between the tables, placing appetizers (“a composed salad of french pumpkin and golden beets”) and filling wine glasses. After the main course (“grilled supreme of organic chicken served with a fricassee of root vegetables”), the lights dim and the voice of Morgan Freeman fills the room, exalting, God-like, the glory of science. “There was a time when a scientist was the most celebrated person on the planet, as it should be.”
The whole ordeal is being filmed live, and broadcast on the National Geographic Channel (owned by Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox). After Freeman’s sermon, the awards cut to commercial, and 90 seconds later a disembodied female voice exhorts the room to applaud as the feed goes live once again. Then onto the awards proper. To announce each category, a celebrity is paired with a tech billionaire. Will.i.am and Priscilla Chan. Kevin Durant and Susan Wojcicki. Vin Diesel and Mark Zuckerberg. Those latter two banter like skit performers at church camp. Zuckerberg ribs Diesel about whether the muscled star will be able to describe without fumbling the scientific process being awarded (a protein test that can detect over 200 different viral families from a single drop of blood). Diesel says it’s no problem: “After all Mark, I’m the geek, and you’re the cool one.”
The deference of coolness before science doesn’t always work so well. Earlier in the night, a reporter tried to offer one awardee a little red carpet treatment. “What are you wearing?” said the smiling journalist, extending her microphone to Deanna See, a high school student from Singapore who won $400,000 in scholarships, lab equipment, plus an endowment for her biology teacher. The teen glanced down at her black gown for just a moment before answering, “A dress.”
Here’s a complete list of this year’s Breakthrough Prize Winners
(Each of the five Life Science winners will receive a $3 million prize.)
- Stephen Elledge, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School, for showing how eukaryotic cells sense and respond to danger in their DNA, and for providing insights into cancer development and treatment.
- Harry F. Noller, biologist at UC Santa Cruz, for connecting modern biology to the origin of life by discovering how RNA is central in forming the active centers of the ribosome, the fundamental machinery of protein synthesis in all cells.
- Roeland Nusse, for pioneering research on the Wnt pathway, one of the crucial intercellular signaling systems in development, cancer, and stem cell biology.
- Yoshinori Ohsumi, biologist at Tokyo Institute of Technology, for showing how cells recycle their nutrients from inessential or damaged parts, a process called autophagy.
- Huda Yahya Zoghbi, geneticist at Baylor College of Medicine, for discovering the genetic causes and biochemical mechanisms of spinocerebellar ataxia and Rett syndrome.
(The three winners will share a single, $3 million prize.)
Joseph Polchinski, UC Santa Barbara; Andrew Strominger, Harvard University; and, Cumrun Vafa, Harvard University, for transformative advances in quantum field theory, string theory, and quantum gravity.
2017 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.)
Ronald Drever, physicist emeritus at the CalTech; Kip Thorne, CalTech; and, Rainer Weiss, physicist emeritus at MIT, for their observation of gravitational waves, opening new horizons in astronomy and physics (The LIGO experiment).
2017 Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics
(He will receive a $3 million prize.)
Jean Bourgain, mathematician at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton, New Jersey, for his multiple transformative contributions to analysis, combinatorics, partial differential equations, high-dimensional geometry and number theory.