Breakthrough Prizes: $36 Million for Science Innovation Winners

Awards honor scientists who "refuse to accept conventional wisdom, question everything, and venture into new worlds," Alibaba's Jack Ma said.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.—Hollywood glamour and showbiz panache engulfed Silicon Valley Nov. 9 in the form of the second annual Breakthrough Prizes, which took place at a lavish gala dinner event at the brilliantly lit and staged Hangar One at NASA Ames Federal Airfield.

Hangar One, built for the Navy airship, the USS Macon, dates back to the early 1930s but is currently undergoing refurbishment. A specially designed, greenhouse-style, Plexigas enclosure was constructed to house the event.

The awards, given to innovative scientific scholars and inventors, are sponsored by Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg and Dr. Priscilla Chan, Google co-founder Sergei Brin and Anne Wojcicki, Alibaba founder CEO Jack Ma and Cathy Zhang, and Los Angeles-area IT investors Yuri and Julie Milner.

A total of $36 million—$3 million each—was meted out for the prizes. Singer, author and television producer Seth MacFarlane was the emcee, and a number of Hollywood entertainers were on the bill as either performers or presenters, including Christina Aguilera, Jon Hamm, Eddie Redmayne, Benedict Cumberbatch and Kate Beckinsale, among others.

Celebrity Guests Galore

Other guests in the audience included California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, media magnate Rupert Murdoch, former Prime Minister of Israel Ehud Barak and movie producer Harvey Weinstein. The event was catered by Thomas Keller of The French laundry in Yountville, Calif.

"The world faces many fundamental challenges today, and there are many amazing scientists, researchers and engineers helping us solve them," Zuckerberg said. "This year's Breakthrough Prize winners have made discoveries that will help cure disease and move the world forward. They deserve to be recognized as heroes."

The ceremony, attended by about 500 people, was produced and directed by Emmy Award-winning Don Mischer Productions and will be simulcast in the United States on Discovery Channel and Science Channel on Nov. 15 at 6 p.m. ET/PT, and televised globally the weekend of Nov. 22 on BBC World News.

"Most of our time is spent on mundane matters," Yuri Milner said. "Tonight, we thought about the molecules of life, the structure of prime numbers and the fate of the universe. It was an uplifting occasion for everyone."

"The remarkable scientists we honor refuse to accept conventional wisdom as we know it," Jack Ma said. "They question everything. They venture into new worlds."

Here is a listing of the winners of the 2015 Breakthrough Prizes in the various categories:

Life Sciences

The Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences honors transformative advances toward understanding living systems and extending human life, with one prize dedicated to work that contributes to the understanding of Parkinson's disease.

--Alim Louis Benabid, Joseph Fourier University, for the discovery and pioneering work on the development of high-frequency deep brain stimulation (DBS), which has revolutionized the treatment of Parkinson's disease.

--C. David Allis, Rockefeller University, for the discovery of covalent modifications of histone proteins and their critical roles in the regulation of gene expression and chromatin organization, advancing the understanding of diseases ranging from birth defects to cancer.

--Victor Ambros, University of Massachusetts Medical School, and Gary Ruvkun, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, for the discovery of a new world of genetic regulation by microRNAs, a class of tiny RNA molecules that inhibit translation or destabilize complementary mRNA targets. Each received a $3 million award.
--Jennifer Doudna, University of California, Berkeley, Howard Hughes Medical Institute and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and Emmanuelle Charpentier, Helmholtz Center for Infection Research and Umeå University, for harnessing an ancient mechanism of bacterial immunity into a powerful and general technology for editing genomes, with wide-ranging implications across biology and medicine. Each received a $3 million award.


The inaugural Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics honors five of the world's best mathematicians who have contributed to major advances in the field.

--Simon Donaldson, Stony Brook University and Imperial College London, for the new revolutionary invariants of four-dimensional manifolds and for the study of the relation between stability in algebraic geometry and in global differential geometry, both for bundles and for Fano varieties.

--Maxim Kontsevich, Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques, for work making a deep impact in a vast variety of mathematical disciplines, including algebraic geometry, deformation theory, symplectic topology, homological algebra and dynamical systems.

--Jacob Lurie, Harvard University, for his work on the foundations of higher category theory and derived algebraic geometry; for the classification of fully extended topological quantum field theories; and for providing a moduli-theoretic interpretation of elliptic cohomology.

--Terence Tao, University of California, Los Angeles, for numerous breakthrough contributions to harmonic analysis, combinatorics, partial differential equations and analytic number theory.

--Richard Taylor, Institute for Advanced Study, for numerous breakthrough results in the theory of automorphic forms, including the Taniyama-Weil conjecture, the local Langlands conjecture for general linear groups and the Sato-Tate conjecture.

Fundamental Physics

--Saul Perlmutter, University of California, Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and members of the Supernova Cosmology Project; Brian P. Schmidt, Australian National University, Adam Riess, Johns Hopkins University and the Space Telescope Science Institute, and members of the High-Z Supernova Team. The citation: For the most unexpected discovery that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, rather than slowing as had been long assumed.

Supernova Cosmology Project Team Breakthrough Prize winners: Greg Aldering, Brian J. Boyle, Patricia G. Castro, Warrick J. Couch, Susana Deustua, Richard S. Ellis, Sebastien Fabbro, Alexei V. Filippenko, Andrew S. Fruchter, Ariel Goobar, Donald E. Groom, Isobel M. Hook, Mike Irwin, Alex G. Kim, Matthew Y. Kim, Robert A. Knop, Julia C. Lee, Chris Lidman, Thomas Matheson, Richard G. McMahon, Richard Muller, Heidi J. M. Newberg, Peter Nugent, Nelson J. Nunes, Reynald Pain, Nino Panagia, Carl R. Pennypacker, Robert Quimby, Pilar Ruiz-Lapuente, Bradley E. Schaefer and Nicholas Walton.

High-Z Supernova Search Team Breakthrough Prize winners: Peter Challis, Alejandro Clocchiatti, Alan Diercks, Alexei V. Filippenko, Peter M. Garnavich, Ron L. Gilliland, Craig J. Hogan, Saurabh Jha, Robert P. Kirshner, Bruno Leibundgut, Mark M. Phillips, David Reiss, R. Chris Smith, Jason Spyromilio, Christopher Stubbs, Nicholas B. Suntzeff and John Tonry.

New Horizons in Physics Prizes

--Sean Hartnoll, Stanford University, for applying holographic methods to obtain remarkable new insights into strongly interacting quantum matter.

--Philip C. Schuster and Natalia Toro, Perimeter Institute, for pioneering the "simplified models" framework for new physics searches at the Large Hadron Collider, as well as spearheading new experimental searches for dark sectors using high-intensity electron beams.

--Horacio Casini and Marina Huerta, CONICET and Instituto Balseiro, Universidad Nacional de Cuyo; Shinsei Ryu, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; and Tadashi Takayanagi, Kyoto University, for fundamental ideas about entropy in quantum field theory and quantum gravity.
For more information on the Breakthrough Prizes, go here.

Photo of Breakthrough Prize event by Getty Images, used by permission.

Chris Preimesberger

Chris Preimesberger

Chris Preimesberger is Editor of Features & Analysis at eWEEK, responsible in part for the publication's coverage areas. In his 10 years and more than 3,500 stories at eWEEK, he has distinguished...