Watch the sixth annual Breakthrough Prize awards live right here!



As we head into awards season, one of the first shows to lead the pack is all about science.

The Breakthrough Prize, a cumulative $22 million in awards that go to superstars in the fields of physics, life sciences, and mathematics, is going into its sixth year.

The show was founded by Yuri and Julia Milner, Sergey Brin, Anne Wojcicki, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, Jack Ma and Cathy Zhang, with Tencent CEO Ma Huateng (Pony Ma) joining just this week as a founding sponsor.

The show will be held at the NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley and will be hosted by none other than Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman.

And that’s not the only star power coming to the show this year — Wiz Khalifa will perform with musician Nana Ou-Yang, and celebrities such as Ron Howard, Mila Kunis, Ashton Kutcher, Kerry Washington, former NFL player and mathematician John Urschel, and Miss USA 2017 Kára McCullough will be in attendance to present awards.

From the official release: here are the prize winners and a brief description of their work:

Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics

(The $3 million physics prize will be shared between the entire 27 member WMAP experimental team, with the largest share going to the following five team leaders)

  • Chuck L. Bennett, Johns Hopkins University
  • Gary Hinshaw, Univ. of British Columbia
  • Norman Jarosik, Princeton University
  • Lyman Page, Jr., Princeton University
  • David N. Spergel, Princeton University

For detailed maps of the early universe that greatly improved our knowledge of the evolution of the cosmos and the fluctuations that seeded the formation of galaxies.

This team of astrophysicists, working in collaboration with NASA, built and launched the WMAP space telescope, that from 2001-2010, and from a million miles from Earth, mapped the ‘first light’ of the universe in the moments immediately after the Big Bang some 13.75 billion years ago. Their maps of the cosmic background radiation advanced our understanding of the origins and evolution of the universe, its continued acceleration outward, and its basic components – 73% of which is a mysterious “dark energy,” and only 4.6% of which is ordinary matter like the planets, the stars and people.

Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences

(Each of the five Life Science winners will receive a $3 million prize.)

Don Cleveland, University of California San Diego

For elucidating the molecular pathogenesis of a type of inherited ALS, including the role of glia in neurodegeneration, and for establishing antisense oligonucleotide therapy in animal models of ALS and Huntington disease.

Don Cleveland has made major discoveries and developed experimental therapies for diseases of the brain and nervous system – from ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and Alzheimer’s to Huntington Disease – the latter, a fatal genetic disorder that affects 30K Americans, with 200K more at risk. He was the first to identify the tau protein, believed to be a main driver of Alzheimer’s. And since then has developed a series of gene-silencing therapies and designer DNA drugs – including a drug that turns-off the gene for Huntington Disease. This year, 400 children with spinal muscular atrophy – now the #1 cause of death for infants — have been treated with a DNA drug developed from Cleveland’s research.

Joanne Chory, Salk Institute for Biological Studies & Howard Hughes Medical Institute

For discovering the molecular mechanisms by which plants extract information from light and shade to modify their programs of shoot and leaf growth in the photosynthetic harvest of light.

What if we could engineer plants to increase by 20X the amount of carbon that they fix into sugar? Perhaps we could impact on climate changes that threatens all mammalian life. That’s what plant geneticist Joanne Chory is currently working on after having spent 30 years understanding how plants work. She was first to discover the genetic pathway that drives how plants are able to sense and respond to light by growing genetically varied plants in total darkness.

Kim Nasmyth, University of Oxford

For elucidating the sophisticated mechanism that mediates the perilous separation of duplicated chromosomes during cell division and thereby prevents genetic diseases such as cancer.

Dr. Nasmyth discovered the mechanism for how an 6.5 feet / 2 meters of DNA packs into each cell without tangling up in knots. Nasmyth had a eureka moment while mountain climbing. He imagined that similar to ropes and carabiners (metal rings), DNA folds up upon itself through a very precise cellular looping mechanism. Nasmyth also discovered that each DNA loop formed a key genetic circuit – whereby genes far away on the chain come into contact with one another in just the right pairings. Disease can result from the DNA loops not being in proper alignment. His work opens the door for eradicating disease through the genetic editing and repair of faulty DNA loops.

Peter Walter, UC San Francisco

For elucidating the unfolded protein response, a cellular quality-control system that detects disease-causing unfolded proteins and directs cells to take corrective measures.

An German-American biochemist and expert in the ‘quality-control’ mechanisms that operate within the living cell, Dr. Walter is currently working on a “miracle” molecule that in early studies with brain damaged mice has dramatically improved brain function and restored memories. His lab is exploring how this drug might eventually be used with humans to reverse the symptoms of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Syndrome).

Kazutoshi Mori, Kyoto University

Also, for elucidating the unfolded protein response, a cellular quality-control system that detects disease-causing unfolded proteins and directs cells to take corrective measures.

Dr. Mori shares the prize with Peter Walter for discovering the “quality control” mechanisms that support healthy function of the cell. He is currently investigating new strategies for attacking cancer tumors by disrupting the life-support systems that allow the tumor cells to survive in conditions of low oxygen and low nutrients.

Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics

(The 2 mathematics winners will share a $3 million prize)

  • Christopher Hacon, University of Utah
  • James McKernan, UC San Diego

For transformational contributions to birational algebraic geometry, especially to the minimal model program in all dimensions.

Anyone who’s taken a drawing class remembers the rule for projecting 3D space onto a flat, lower-dimensional 2D-surface: parallel lines should appear to converge at a “vanishing point,” and that gives the illusion of 3D. While it’s almost impossible to visualize beyond even 3 dimensions, Hacon and McKernan use algebra to establish the rules for projecting objects from 1000+ dimensions onto lower-dimensional surfaces.

For the first time, the Breakthrough Prize Awards will be live streamed and can be seen on Breakthrough Prize YouTube, Breakthrough Prize Facebook, National Geographic YouTube, and National Geographic Facebook.



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