Home / Science / In the Breakthrough Awards, Silicon Valley puts scientists in the foreground

In the Breakthrough Awards, Silicon Valley puts scientists in the foreground



Each year in December, an improvised hangar at the NASA Ames Research Center appears for one night, transforming the austere airfield into a dazzling, paparazzi, Nerd Prom with black velvet ropes. At the Breakthrough Awards, where on December 3 a total of $ 22 million was awarded to pioneers in math, physics and life sciences, researchers exchanged lab coats and latex gloves for dresses to the floor and tuxedo with a bow. Outside everything was barbed wire and cold steel, but on the red carpet, stars and scientists sweated under the bright white lights and the flash of the cameras.

"My laboratory will be totally shocked to see me like this". said Joanne Chory, a plant geneticist at the Salk Institute in San Diego and the only female adjudicator at the Sunday award ceremony, while shining in a turn of pink sequins with matching metal eyeglass frames. The winners, all 1

2, had strict instructions not to tell any of their colleagues before boarding the planes and flying for the event. But when the clock arrived at 4:30 p.m. Pacific time, and the news began to come out, the emails began to flood. David Spergel, Princeton's theoretical physicist, was one of five members of the universal cataloging WMAP team that won the award. physical. "Here we are recognized five, but 20 more in our team that just found out, are absolutely delighted."

The Nobel may be more prestigious than the Progress, but they come with much less money (around $ 2 million less, per award). Alfred Nobel, whose fortune in the dynamite industry financed the namesake prize, expected him to atone for his explosive contributions to science. But that is not the only thing that has involved the controversial prize from the beginning. His will instructed that each prize could be awarded to only one person, only for the discoveries made the previous year, and oh, yes, not to mathematicians. While the committee charged with carrying out its moribund desires has relaxed some of the rules over the years, the underlying framework still maintains the absurd notion that scientific advancement comes on the backs of lone geniuses.

The Breakthrough Award was supposed to fix all of that, with a spirit of inclusion, optimism and brilliant cash from Silicon Valley. Much of the prize money comes from Yuri Milner, the Russian billionaire technology investor who created and financed the first prize before convincing the executives of Facebook, Google, 23andMe and Alibaba to contribute more. (Since 2012, together they have awarded more than 70 prizes of $ 3 million to leading researchers). But when the Paradise Documents were made public in early November, they revealed that behind Milner's investments in Facebook and Twitter were hundreds of millions of dollars traced back to the Kremlin.

The other oligarchs of the Valley-Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin, Sundar Pichai, Jack Dorsey-have also been criticized for the complicity of their platforms in spreading Russian disinformation during the 2016 presidential campaign. In October, the titans The techies received a bipartisan beating on Capitol Hill, where members of Congress criticized Facebook, Twitter and Google for allowing Russian attempts to divide the US electorate and sow doubt in the democratic process.

The subsequent technological reaction is hitting hardest in Washington, where disputes over regulation and antitrust have worsened in recent months. In the nation's capital, the corporate leviathans that were once seen as beacons of the new American company are increasingly portrayed as sinister power centers, too big to be held accountable. These revelations and transformations can not avoid changing the perception of wealth that supports the various Advances. Perhaps anticipating this line of questions, the technological royalty of the event was remarkably silent this year. Only Dick Costolo, formerly of Twitter, challenged the media corral, saying he was happy to be at an event that "puts scientists at the center." Brin rejected the questions, as did Milner, who barely broke a jaw-dropping smile. Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan did not show up, although Zuck sent a video greeting with a gray hood that was played during the awards ceremony. Cori Bargmann was present, the only representative in person of the couple's philanthropic organization, CZI. This marked a striking comparison with last year, said one of the group's male reporters, who had found Milner an entertaining interview in 2016. "If I had known it would be like that, I do not think I would have seen it," he said.

With the Silicon Valley luminaries glued to the margins, perhaps it was Gavin Newsom, the deputy governor of California, who captured the moment best: "We are celebrating tonight everything that Washington Trump is not: facts, science, innovation, Entrepreneurship, "he said." It is important that we demonstrate here in California that we are committed to investing in that. "

And at least for the winning scientists, the prize has not yet been tainted by reaction or the current political climate. Chory says he did not think twice before accepting. She is planning to give most of the money to her children, so they can pay off student loan debts and buy houses. But at least a considerable piece will be used to turn his research into a global reality. Despite his daily battle with Parkinson's, Chory has spent the past three decades in the laboratory genetically engineering crop plants such as chickpeas and lentils that can extract 20 times the average amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it as a polymer similar to cork at great depth.

What follows is to climb to the planetary level. She estimated that converting only 5 percent of the world's cropland to her plants could eliminate half of the global CO emissions 2 . But financing field trials and the production and distribution of seeds and the reach of farmers is beyond the reach of most research funding mechanisms. That is why he hopes that the prize money will give his initiative a boost to attract other donations and investors. "I'll do everything I can to milk him as best he can," says Chory, who estimates that the total cost for the launch is around what Milner paid for his $ 100 million mansion, located just above the red carpet of Ames. She says she appreciates being recognized and a reason to go shopping with her family. But although she was happy to attend the evening with her children, she is focused on doing something to make the world inherit a less dangerous place. "I'm trying to do something now for humanity, not just to please the brain or follow a scientific curiosity, I do not want to leave a horrible planet like my legacy."

Bargmann, who was on the life sciences selection committee this year, said the award was, for her, both about the future, and about the moments in the past that changed science forever. "We are honoring people tonight who totally changed a field, it was a path before they appeared, and something totally different afterwards."

For the chromosomal theory of human genetic inheritance, that is, how did you get the genes that You got, that was Kim Nasmyth, an Oxford biochemist who discovered how chromosomes separate during mitosis. He thought about taking off his old wool tuxedo for the event, but finally opted for something newer and less warm. On his lapel he wore a gold pin with a white cross on a red shield, a gift from the city of Vienna, where he used to work. "It's the only piece of jewelry I own," he said. "I thought I could use it."

Although he is delighted to receive the award, and to pay part of the money to a foundation that will support the next generation of scientists, he says that recognition should never be the goal. of a good researcher "In the end, when you get up in the morning, you just want to know, understand," he says. "I think what drives discoveries are the mysteries that can not be explained."

Here is a complete list of the winners of this year's Breakthrough Award

Life Sciences
(Each of the five Life Sciences winners will receive $ 3 million in prizes.)

  • Joanne Chory, a biologist with molecular plants at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, for deciphering how plants optimize cell growth, development and structure to transform sunlight into energy.
  • Don W. Cleveland, a neurobiologist at the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research at the University of California, San Diego, to elucidate the molecular mechanisms behind a type of disease inherited from Lou Gehrig, including the role of glia in neurodegeneration.
  • Kim Nasmyth, a molecular biologist at the University of Oxford to discover how chromosomes separate during cell division, the most dramatic event in the life of a cell.
  • Kazutoshi Mori, a structural biologist at Kyoto University and Peter Walter, a biochemist at the University of California, San Francisco, were recognized for their separate discoveries of a cellular quality control system that detects deployed proteins that cause diseases and directs the cells to take corrective measures. 19659020] Fundamental Physics
    (The five winners received a single prize of $ 3 million, which they will share with the entire WMAP scientific mission team)

    Charles L. Bennett, astrophysicist at Johns Hopkins; Gary Hinshaw, astrophysicist at the University of British Columbia; Norman Jarosik, a physicist at Princeton; Lyman Page Jr., a physicist at Princeton; and David N. Spergel, Princeton astrophysicist, for his work in the construction of detailed maps of the early universe that redefined the evolution of the cosmos and the fluctuations that sowed the formation of galaxies.

    Mathematics
    (The two winners will also share a $ 3 million prize.)

    Christopher Hacon, a mathematician at the University of Utah, and James McKernan, a mathematician at the University of California, San Diego, for its transformational contributions to birational algebraic geometry, especially to the minimum model program in all dimensions.


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