Glitzy ceremony honours work including that on mapping post-big bang primordial light, cell biology, plant science and neurodegenerative diseases
The most glitzy event on the scientific calendar took place on Sunday night when the Breakthrough Foundation gave away $22m (16.3m) in prizes to dozens of physicists, biologists and mathematicians at a ceremony in Silicon Valley.
The winners this year include five researchers who won $3m (2.2m) each for their work on cell biology, plant science and neurodegenerative diseases, two mathematicians, and a team of 27 physicists who mapped the primordial light that warmed the universe moments after the big bang 13.8 billion years ago.
Now in their sixth year, the Breakthrough prizes are backed by Yuri Milner, a Silicon Valley tech investor, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook and his wife Priscilla Chan, Anne Wojcicki from the DNA testing company 23andMe, and Googles Sergey Brin. Launched by Milner in 2012, the awards aim to make rock stars of scientists and raise their profile in the public consciousness.
The annual ceremony at Nasas Ames Research Center in California provides a rare opportunity for some of the worlds leading minds to rub shoulders with celebrities, who this year included Morgan Freeman as host, fellow actors Kerry Washington and Mila Kunis, and Miss USA 2017 Kra McCullough. When Joe Polchinski at the University of California in Santa Barbara shared the physics prize last year, he conceded his nieces and nephews would know more about the A-list attendees than he would.
Oxford University geneticist Kim Nasmyth won for his work on chromosomes but said he had not worked out what to do with the windfall. Its a wonderful bonus, but not something you expect, he said. Its a huge amount of money, I havent had time to think it through. On being recognised for what amounts to his lifes work, he added: You have to do science because you want to know, not because you want to get recognition. If you do what it takes to please other people, youll lose your moral compass. Nasmyth has won lucrative awards before and channelled some of his winnings into Gregor Mendels former monastery in Brno.
Another life sciences prizewinner, Joanne Chory at the Salk Institute in San Diego, was honoured for three decades of painstaking research into the genetic programs that flip into action when plants find themselves plunged into shade. Her work revealed that plants can sense when a nearby competitor is about to steal their light, sparking a growth spurt in response. The plants detect threatening neighbours by sensing a surge in the particular wavelengths of red light that are given off by vegetation.
Chory now has ambitious plans to breed plants that can suck vast quantities of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere in a bid to combat climate change. She believes that crops could be selected to absorb 20 times more of the greenhouse gas than they do today, and convert it into suberin, a waxy material found in roots and bark that breaks down incredibly slowly in soil. If we can do this on 5% of the landmass people are growing crops on, we can take out 50% of global human emissions, she said.
Three other life sciences prizes went to Kazutoshi Mori at Kyoto University and Peter Walter for their work on quality control mechanisms that keep cells healthy, and to Don Cleveland at the University of California, San Diego, for his research on motor neurone disease.
The $3m Breakthrough prize in mathematics was shared by two British-born mathematicians, Christopher Hacon at the University of Utah and James McKernan at the University of California in San Diego. The pair made major contributions to a field of mathematics known as birational algebraic geometry, which sets the rules for projecting abstract objects with more than 1,000 dimensions onto lower-dimensional surfaces. It gets very technical, very quickly, said McKernan.
Speaking before the ceremony, Hacon was feeling a little unnerved. Its really not a mathematician kind of thing, but Ill probably survive, he said. Ive got a tux ready, but Im not keen on wearing it. Asked what he might do with his share of the winnings, Hacon was nothing if not realistic. Ill start by paying taxes, he said. And I have six kids, so the rest will evaporate.
Chuck Bennett, an astrophysicist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, led a Nasa mission known as the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) to map the faint afterglow of the big bangs radiation that now permeates the universe. The achievement, now more than a decade old, won the 27-strong science team the $3m Breakthrough prize in fundamental physics. When we made our first maps of the sky, I thought these are beautiful, Bennett told the Guardian. It is still absolutely amazing to me. We can look directly back in time.
Bennett believes that the prizes may help raise the profile of science at a time when it is sorely needed. The point is not to make rock stars of us, but of the science itself, he said. I dont think people realise how big a role science plays in their lives. In everything you do, from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep, theres something about what youre doing that involves scientific advances. I dont think people think about that at all.
Every country on Earth, save for coughone, has banded together to cut emissions and stop the runaway heating of our only home. That’s nearly 200 countries working to keep the global average temperature from climbing 2 degrees Celsius above pre-Industrial Revolution levels.
Phenomenal. But what if cooperation and emissions reduction aren’t enough? Projections show that even if all those countries hit their Paris Agreement emissions pledges, the world will still get too warm too fast, plunging us into climate chaos. So, if we can’t stop what we’ve set in motion, what if we could just cool the planet off by making it more reflective—more like a disco ball than a baseball?
Actually, we could. It’s called solar geoengineering. Scientists could release materials into the stratosphere that reflect sunlight back into space, kind of like slapping giant sunglasses on Earth. You could theoretically do this with giant space mirrors, but that would require a mountain of R&D and money and materials. More likely, scientists might be able to steal a strategy from Earth itself. When volcanoes erupt, they spew sulfur high in the sky, where the gas turns into an aerosol that blocks sunlight. If scientists added sulfur to the stratosphere manually, that could reflect light away from Earth and help humanity reach its climate goals.
It's not that simple, though: The massive Tambora eruption of 1815 cooled the Earth so much that Europe suffered the “year without summer,” leading to extreme food shortages. And in a study published today in the journal Nature, researchers examine a bunch of other ways a blast of sulfur could do more harm than good.
Specifically, the group looked at how sulfur seeding could impact storms in the North Atlantic. They built models showing what would happen if they were to inject sulfur dioxide into the lower stratosphere above either the Northern or Southern Hemisphere, at a rate of 5 million metric tons per year. Sulfur dioxide gas (SO2) is not itself reflective, but up there it reacts with water, picking up oxygen molecules to become sulfate aerosol (SO4)—now that's reflective. Block out some of the sun, and you block out some of the solar energy.
Now, the Earth's hemispheres aren't just divided by a thick line on your globe; they're actually well-divided by what is essentially a giant updraft. That tends to keep materials like, say, sulfate aerosol, stuck in a given hemisphere. “It goes up and it goes more to the one side where you injected it,” says Simone Tilmes, who studies geoengineering at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and was not involved in the study.
This wall of wind gives you some measure of control. If you were to inject SO2 into the Northern Hemisphere, the models show, you would reduce storm activity in the North Atlantic—probably because the injection would put the tropical jet stream on a collision course with the Atlantic hurricane main development region. Wind shear like that weakens storms as they grow. But inject gas into the Southern Hemisphere and the stream shifts north, increasing storms.
Which all jibes with historical data. In 1912, the Katmai eruption in Alaska spewed 30 cubic kilometers of ash and debris into the atmosphere. What followed was the historical record’s only year without hurricanes.
The potentially good news is that models like these make solar geoengineering a bit more predictable than a volcano eruption. The bad news is not everyone would win. Solar geoengineering in the north would cut precipitation in the semi-arid Sahel in north-central Africa.
What we’re looking at, then, isn’t just a strategy with environmental implications, but humanitarian ones as well. Think about current conflicts over water supplies, especially in the developing world. Now scale that up into conflict over the weather itself. It’s not hard to imagine one part of the world deciding to geoengineer for more water and another part of the world suffering for it. “I therefore think that solar geoengineering is currently too risky to be utilized due to the enormous political friction that it may cause,” says lead author Anthony Jones of the University of Exeter.
What researchers need is way more science, more models, more data, way more of whatever you can get to understand these processes. And they’ll need international guidelines for a technology that could nourish some regions and devastate others—individual nations can’t just make unilateral climate decisions that have global repercussions. “There's a lot we don't know and a lot of differences in models,” says Tilmes. “The answer is we really have to look at it more.”
Really, it’s hard to imagine a conundrum of bigger scale. For now, we'll just have to do what we can with baseball Earth. But perhaps one day we’ll be forced to start building a disco ball, one little mirror at a time.
How Climate Change Is Already Affecting Earth
Though the planet has only warmed by one-degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution, climate change's effect on earth has been anything but subtle. Here are some of the most astonishing developments over the past few years.
John Abraham: The Google engineers infamous sexist manifesto is contradicted by the brilliance of women in science.
What does a sexist Google engineer teach us about women in science?
Thats the short answer, but it deserves some commentary. In early August, a young Google computer engineer made lots of news in the US when he penned a manifesto that many described as sexist and which led to his firing. The memo was written as a backlash against efforts to improve diversity in the workplace. However, the arguments articulated by the manifesto were rightly described as offensive by Google executives.
The explosive part in the memo involved comments about how biological differences explain the paucity of women in technology and leadership fields. While there are certainly both physical and mental differences between men and women, the comments about both genders are, in my opinion, misguided and offensive.
This article is not going to focus much on the content of this so-called manifesto. It also wont focus on the author of this document, except to question the basis for how a very young engineer has the experience, training, or education to make such broad-brush generalizations. I mean, has he for instance managed scores of male and female engineers and been able to assess their quality of work and intellectual capacity? I doubt it. Has he studied this in any detail or published on the topic? I doubt it.
I found this manifesto so ironic because I give a lot of thought to differences between male and female scientists. I am not an expert in the area, certainly not in evolutionary biology. But I am a Full Professor with many years of instructing both undergraduate and graduate students in engineering. I am often struck by how small the female population is in my discipline (perhaps 20%), yet it is higher in other technical fields (biology, mathematics, chemistry, etc.). I am also impressed by how well female students do in technical courses and degree programs. I note a statistically significant performance gap between male and female students in courses; females consistently outperform their male peers.
I also have had the fortune to be a consultant for many different engineering companies from industries such as biomedical, aerospace, manufacturing, clean energy and other fields. In my work, I notice that women team members easily hold their own with male co-workers. I also believe (but I have no evidence) that women think differently than men.
In my anecdotal experience, women are able to consider problems from a wider range of perspectives. This perspective has real value to design teams, it encourages companies to pay more for female employees (yes, our female engineering graduates tend to make more than their male counterparts). Diverse teams make effective teams. That includes gender diversity. So, in my 15 or so years as a professor, and in my perhaps 50 consulting positions, I have lived an experience very different from the one this young Google engineer articulated.
With all that said, I thought this event provided an excellent opportunity to showcase some female scientists who are either world-known or becoming world-known in the field of climate science. So, here are some short bios of brilliant women climate scientists.
Dr. Magdalena Balmaseda
Magdalena A. Balmaseda has been working at ECMWF since 1995. She currently leads the Earth System Predictability Section in the Research Department.
Myron Ebell, who headed the EPAs transition team when Trump became president, said the last decade has been a period of low hurricane activity
Conservative groups with close links to the Trump administration have sought to ridicule the link between climate change and events such as tropical storm Harvey, amid warnings from scientists that storms are being exacerbated by warming temperatures.
Harvey, which smashed into the Texas coast on Friday, rapidly developed into a Category 4 hurricane and has drenched parts of Houston with around 50in of rain in less than a week, more than the city typically receives in a year. So much rain fell that the National Weather Service had to add new colours to its maps.
The flooding has resulted in at least 15 deaths, with more than 30,000 people forced from their homes. Fema has warned that hundreds of thousands of people will require federal help for several years, with Greg Abbott, governor of Texas, calling Harvey one of the largest disasters America has ever faced. Insurers have warned the cost of the damage could amount to $100bn.
Some scientists have pointed to the tropical storm as further evidence of the dangers of climate change, with Penn State University professor of meteorology Michael Mann stating that warming temperatures worsened the impact of the storm, heightening the risk to life and property.
Conservative groups, however, have mobilized to downplay or mock any association between the storm and climate change. Myron Ebell, who headed the Environmental Protection Agencys transition team when Donald Trump became president, said the last decade has been a period of low hurricane activity and pointed out that previous hurricanes occurred when emissions were lower.
Instead of wasting colossal sums of money on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, much smaller amounts should be spent on improving the infrastructure that protects the Gulf and Atlantic costs, said Ebell, who is director of environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a libertarian thinktank that has received donations from fossil fuel companies such as Exxon Mobil.
Thomas Pyle, who led Trumps transition team for the department of energy, said: It is unfortunate, but not surprising, that the left is exploiting Hurricane Harvey to try and advance their political agenda, but it wont work.
When everything is a problem related to climate change, the solutions no longer become attainable. That is their fundamental problem.
Pyle is president of the Institute of Energy Research, which was founded in Houston but is now based in Washington DC. The nonprofit organization has consistently questioned the science of climate change and has close ties to the Koch family.
The Heartland Institute, a prominent conservative group that produced a blueprint of cuts to the EPA that has been mirrored by the Trump administrations budget, quoted a procession of figures from the worlds of economics, mathematics and engineering to ridicule the climate change dimension of Harvey.
In the bizarro world of the climate change cultists … Harvey will be creatively spun to prove there are dire effects linked to man-created climate change, a theory that is not proven by the available science, said Bette Grande, a Heartland research fellow and a Republican who served in the North Dakota state legislature until 2014.
Facts do not get in the way of climate change alarmism, and we will continue to fight for the truth in the months and years to come.
Harvey was the most powerful storm to hit Texas in 50 years, but according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it is premature to conclude that there has already been an increase in Atlantic-born hurricanes due to temperatures that have risen globally, on average, by around 1C since the industrial revolution.
Scientists have also been reluctant to assign individual storms to climate change but recent research has sought to isolate global changes from natural variability in disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005.
However, researchers are also increasingly certain that the warming of the atmosphere and oceans is likely to fuel longer or more destructive hurricanes. A draft of the upcoming national climate assessment states there is high confidence that there will be an increase in the intensity and precipitation rates of hurricanes and typhoons in the Atlantic and Pacific as temperatures rise further.
Harvey may well fit that theory, according to climate scientist Kevin Trenberth, as the hurricane managed to turn from a tropical depression to a category four event in little more than two days, fed by a patch of the Gulf of Mexico that was up to 4C warmer than the long term average.
When storms start to get going, they churn up water from deeper in the ocean and this colder water can slow them down, said Trenberth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. But if the upwelling water is warmer, it gives them a longer lifetime and larger intensity. There is now more ocean heat deep below the surface. The Atlantic was primed for an event like this.
While the number of hurricanes may actually fall, scientists warn the remaining events will likely be stronger. A warmer atmosphere holds more evaporated water, which can fuel precipitation Trenberth said as much as 30% of Harveys rainfall could be attributed to global warming. For lower-lying areas, the storm surge created by hurricanes is worsened by a sea level that is rising, on average, by around 3.5mm a year across the globe.
The oil and gas industry has sought to see off the threat in the Gulf of Mexico with taller platforms post-Katrina, offshore rigs are around 90ft above sea level compared to 70ft in the 1990s but the Houston, the epicenter of the industry, is considered vulnerable due to its relaxed approach to planning that has seen housing built in flood-prone areas.
Barack Obamas administration established a rule that sought to flood-proof new federal infrastructure projects by demanding they incorporate the latest climate change science. Last week, Trump announced he would scrap the rule, provoking a rebuke from Carlos Curbelo, a Florida Republican congressman who called the move irresponsible.
Curbelo, who has attempted to rally Republicans to address climate change, wouldnt comment on the climate change link to Harvey. Ted Cruz and John Cornyn, Texass Republican senators, didnt respond to questions on the climate link, nor did Abbott, the states governor, or Dan Patrick, Texass lieutenant governor. All four of the Texas politicians have expressed doubts over the broad scientific understanding that the world is warming and that human activity is the primary cause.
Its essential to talk about climate change in relation to events like Hurricane Harvey and its sad a lot of reports dont mention it in any way, said Trenberth.
You dont want to overstate it but climate change is a contributor and is making storms more intense. A relatively small increase in intensity can do a tremendous amount of damage. Its enough for thresholds to be crossed and for things to start breaking.