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Science’s most valuable prize puts spotlight on discovery

December 7, 2016 at 6:35 PM EDT
The Breakthrough Prizes honor scientific achievements with the largest cash prizes in the field. Hari Sreenivasan speaks with science correspondent Miles O’Brien for more on this year’s winners.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The movie industry has its Oscars, the music world the Grammys, and, sure, there are Nobel Prizes in science, but the world of science would like to connect with the popular culture.

This weekend, there were some notable awards in that field held in a makeshift hangar at NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley, and that’s the focus of our weekly segment about the Leading Edge of science and technology.

Miles O’Brien is here to tell us a little bit more about who won and for what achievements.

So — but what is this and who’s behind it?

MILES O’BRIEN: Hari, it’s called the Breakthrough Prizes.

They were founded five years ago by a few Silicon Valley moguls. They wanted to recognize scientists with the largest cash prizes in science, glitzy gala, big-name stars from tech and entertainment.

The scientific rock stars were honored by some Hollywood celebrities, Morgan Freeman, Alicia Keys, Jeremy Irons, Black Eyed Peas star, who probably put it best.

WILL.I.AM, Musician: When somebody graduates and plays basketball from the NBA who just came from UCLA, there’s a show about that. There’s a show called the draft. And people tune in.

But when someone graduates from MIT and then ends up working at Google, nobody knows. So I think, in popular culture, like, we do a very poor job celebrating the right things.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, I see three different categories here, fundamental physics, life sciences, and math.

Let’s start with life sciences.

MILES O’BRIEN: Life sciences is the largest of the five topics for recipients. Each person or awardee group gets a $3 million prize for major contributions to the understanding of the inner workings of life.

Now, for example, Stephen Elledge, a scientist at Harvard and he’s affiliated with the Howard Hughes Medical Institute as well, was recognized for his research into how DNA detects when it is damaged. Here he is explaining it.

STEPHEN ELLEDGE, Harvard Medical School: DNA has this incredible ability to sense its own integrity. It’s a molecule, but it knows when it’s damaged. And it has built a signaling apparatus that’s a little bit like sort of a radio station. It sends out signals when there’s a problem and calls in the troops and it organizes everything. So it’s really about communication inside the cell.

MILES O’BRIEN: This is key because disruptions of this mechanism are linked to cancer, and there are already some cancer treatments being implemented that are based on this research. So it’s very exciting, Hari.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, there was a special category — award in the category of physics. Tell us about it.

MILES O’BRIEN: Yes, physics is always interesting.

There were some awards which got into string theory, which would be too hard to explain in the time we have. But this one is very interesting. And you have about it, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or LIGO. It earned a special prize in fundamental physics.

What is LIGO? Well, this 1,000-plus-member team will be splitting that $3 million prize for their detection of gravity waves caused by the merging two of black holes. LIGO uses lasers to precisely measure the position of mirrors separated from each other by about 2.5 miles.

Now, in addition, it takes these measurements at two locations about 1,900 miles apart, one in Louisiana, one in the state of Washington. LIGO is so sensitive, it actually measures the compressing and stretching of space itself. It is the most precise measuring device ever built.

It can detect a disturbance of — now, listen to this — one part in 1,000 billion billion, or something like 1/1,000 of the diameter of a proton. That is hard to — it’s mind-boggling. All right? We’re deep in the quantum world here.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, we don’t talk about math that much, but what about the math prize?

MILES O’BRIEN: Yes. I know folks might have some flashbacks to middle school right now, but this is interesting.

Jean Bourgain of Princeton was awarded for contributions to high-dimensional geometry and some other branches of that. Now, his main innovation was expanding the Fourier analysis, which I know you know well, Hari. It’s a method to break down messy signals into basic repeated components like a sine or cosine graph you might remember from high school.

Now, this makes it easier to understand the underlying structures of complex mathematical situations, both physical and theoretical.

And I think we better to end it there, because it’s going to get deep very quickly.

HARI SREENIVASAN: I remember the tension in my geometry classes were whether or not you should have those Texas Instruments calculators. Oh, it’s cheating. You should do these sine graphs yourselves.

Now, speaking of life back in the old days, there are also prizes for younger scientists. What were they getting prizes for?

MILES O’BRIEN: Yes. And this is exciting stuff.

Two high school students, Deanna See from Singapore and Antonella Masini from Peru, also won the Breakthrough Junior Challenge. It’s a competition in which students from around the world submitted videos explaining some very tough scientific concepts, probably better than I am right now.

Deanna chose antibiotic resistance in bacteria. And Antonella discussed quantum entanglement — quantum entanglement, not bad for a high schooler.

So, what does the award mean to her? Fewer entanglements with scholarships and student loans. Let’s listen.

ANTONELLA MASINI, Breakthrough Junior Challenge Winner: I have a little economical problems at home. And now with this prize, I can choose any school that I want, any college that I want. And it’s unbelievable. I’m really grateful — grateful for this opportunity. And will never forget it.

MILES O’BRIEN: And I have a feeling, Hari, we won’t forget her either.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Miles, we were such slackers compared to just those two kids, much less probably all the kids that were nominated there.

MILES O’BRIEN: It’s why we’re here.


HARI SREENIVASAN: All right. Thank you, Miles O’Brien, joining us from Boston tonight.