Researchers share $22m Breakthrough prize as science gets rock star treatment

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.

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How a half-educated tech elite delivered us into evil | John Naughton

If our supersmart tech leaders knew a bit more about history or philosophy we wouldnt be in the mess were in now

One of the biggest puzzles about our current predicament with fake news and the weaponisation of social media is why the folks who built this technology are so taken aback by what has happened. Exhibit A is the founder of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, whose political education I recently chronicled. But hes not alone. In fact Id say he is quite representative of many of the biggest movers and shakers in the tech world. We have a burgeoning genre of OMG, what have we done? angst coming from former Facebook and Google employees who have begun to realise that the cool stuff they worked on might have had, well, antisocial consequences.

Put simply, what Google and Facebook have built is a pair of amazingly sophisticated, computer-driven engines for extracting users personal information and data trails, refining them for sale to advertisers in high-speed data-trading auctions that are entirely unregulated and opaque to everyone except the companies themselves.

The purpose of this infrastructure was to enable companies to target people with carefully customised commercial messages and, as far as we know, they are pretty good at that. (Though some advertisers are beginning to wonder if these systems are quite as good as Google and Facebook claim.) And in doing this, Zuckerberg, Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin and co wrote themselves licences to print money and build insanely profitable companies.

It never seems to have occurred to them that their advertising engines could also be used to deliver precisely targeted ideological and political messages to voters. Hence the obvious question: how could such smart people be so stupid? The cynical answer is they knew about the potential dark side all along and didnt care, because to acknowledge it might have undermined the aforementioned licences to print money. Which is another way of saying that most tech leaders are sociopaths. Personally I think thats unlikely, although among their number are some very peculiar characters: one thinks, for example, of Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel Trumps favourite techie; and Travis Kalanick, the founder of Uber.

So what else could explain the astonishing naivety of the tech crowd? My hunch is it has something to do with their educational backgrounds. Take the Google co-founders. Sergey Brin studied mathematics and computer science. His partner, Larry Page, studied engineering and computer science. Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard, where he was studying psychology and computer science, but seems to have been more interested in the latter.

Now mathematics, engineering and computer science are wonderful disciplines intellectually demanding and fulfilling. And they are economically vital for any advanced society. But mastering them teaches students very little about society or history or indeed about human nature. As a consequence, the new masters of our universe are people who are essentially only half-educated. They have had no exposure to the humanities or the social sciences, the academic disciplines that aim to provide some understanding of how society works, of history and of the roles that beliefs, philosophies, laws, norms, religion and customs play in the evolution of human culture.

We are now beginning to see the consequences of the dominance of this half-educated elite. As one perceptive observer Bob ODonnell puts it, a liberal arts major familiar with works like Alexis de Tocquevilles Democracy in America, John Stuart Mills On Liberty, or even the work of ancient Greek historians, might have been able to recognise much sooner the potential for the tyranny of the majority or other disconcerting sociological phenomena that are embedded into the very nature of todays social media platforms. While seemingly democratic at a superficial level, a system in which the lack of structure means that all voices carry equal weight, and yet popularity, not experience or intelligence, actually drives influence, is clearly in need of more refinement and thought than it was first given.

All of which brings to mind CP Snows famous Two Cultures lecture, delivered in Cambridge in 1959, in which he lamented the fact that the intellectual life of the whole of western society was scarred by the gap between the opposing cultures of science and engineering on the one hand, and the humanities on the other with the latter holding the upper hand among contemporary ruling elites. Snow thought that this perverse dominance would deprive Britain of the intellectual capacity to thrive in the postwar world and he clearly longed to reverse it.

Snow passed away in 1980, but one wonders what he would have made of the new masters of our universe. One hopes that he might see it as a reminder of the old adage: be careful what you wish for you might just get it.

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