Tech Billionaires Throw an Oscar Night for Science Nerds
It was a red-carpet, black-tie affair at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., on Thursday evening, an exclusive gala replete with stars of stage, screen and … science?
It was no film premiere, though you’d hardly be faulted for mistaking it for one. It was the 2013 Breakthrough Prize awards ceremony, an amalgam of business, celebrity and academia all wrapped in Hollywood glitter, put on by a handful of the tech elite.
The point of the event, said Russian billionaire and Digital Sky Technologies co-founder Yuri Milner, is to celebrate the lesser-known heroes — those scholars studying the big problems and questions of the world — in much the same way Hollywood fetes the fixtures of the entertainment industry.
The Breakthrough Prizes in Fundamental Physics and Life Sciences — the awards’ official title — are Milner’s labor of love. A former physicist himself, over the past few years he has rallied some of his most powerful friends in Silicon Valley to back the effort, getting the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, Sergey Brin and Anne Wojcicki to donate millions to the prize pool.
“It’s a small step toward the recognition they deserve,” said Art Levinson, CEO of Google’s Calico venture.
The thesis behind the awards is straightforward: To celebrate those scientists making major advancements in their field, and to “generate excitement about the pursuit of science as a career.” Each of this year’s seven prizewinners — their studies ranged from cancer research to new perspectives on quantum gravity — takes home $3 million as recognition for their efforts in the field, to spend however they wish. (Think of the award as a sort of Nobel Prize, but with more money and less name-appeal.)
“Let’s recognize that these people are making significant contributions,” Milner said. “They should earn at least a fraction of what the best Wall Street trader is making.”
Not to mention what the best Wall Street trader is eating. Celebrity chef Thomas Keller closed his marquee Napa, Calif., restaurant, the French Laundry, for the evening to bring his 45-person staff in to cater the affair.
Milner’s co-host of the event was just as glamorous — Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter. Thus, a very swankily produced evening, which the tony publication is very experienced at doing. While it was not Vanity Fair’s famous Oscar party, it was not bad for geekville, which has become a more aggressive focus of coverage of late by the magazine.
Thus, actor Kevin Spacey emceed the event, and was joined by such presenters as Glenn Close (the first woman to have her genome sequenced) and Michael C. Hall of “Dexter” fame (a cancer survivor and research supporter). Also in attendance inside NASA’s massive Hangar One steel structure: Conan O’Brien, cracking jokes and hamming it up in the press line, and Kleiner Perkins venture capitalist John Doerr.
At the end of the night, Zuckerberg and Milner unveiled a third category of prizes to be awarded in the coming year — the Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics — with details to come in 2014.
Perhaps the best part about the awards ceremony? At an hour and change, it ran a fraction as long as the usual Hollywood back-patting event.
And for once, at least, it was the nerds’ night to shine.
Here’s the full list of this year’s winners:
The Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics recognizes transformative achievements in the field of fundamental physics, with a special focus on recent developments. The 2014 winners are:
Michael B. Green, University of Cambridge, and John H. Schwarz, California Institute of Technology, for opening new perspectives on quantum gravity and the unification of forces.
The Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences recognizes excellence in research aimed at curing intractable diseases and extending human life. The 2014 recipients are:
James Allison , MD Anderson Cancer Center for the discovery of T cell checkpoint blockade as effective cancer therapy.
Mahlon DeLong , Emory University for defining the interlocking circuits in the brain that malfunction in Parkinson’s disease. This scientific foundation underlies the circuit-based treatment of Parkinson’s disease by deep brain stimulation.
Michael Hall , University of Basel for the discovery of Target of Rapamycin (TOR) and its role in cell growth control.
Robert Langer , David H. Koch Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for discoveries leading to the development of controlled drug-release systems and new biomaterials.
Richard Lifton, Yale University; Howard Hughes Medical Institute for the discovery of genes and biochemical mechanisms that cause hypertension.
Alexander Varshavsky, California Institute of Technology for discovering critical molecular determinants and biological functions of intracellular protein degradation.