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Silicon Valley Rolls Out the Red Carpet for Science

The 2015 Breakthrough Prize honors leading scientists that rarely get the attention lavished on actors and athletes.

Steve Jennings/Getty Images for Breakthrough Prizes

On Sunday night, a wormhole opened to an alternate universe where Mark Zuckerberg caused a greater stir on a red carpet than Kate Beckinsale.

This rip in space-time occurred, appropriately, at the 2015 Breakthrough Prize at NASA’s Ames Research Center in the heart of Silicon Valley, where — for one night each year — nerds rule.

The lavish awards ceremony, which will air on the Discovery Channel and BBC later this month, literally and figuratively shines the sort of spotlight on leading scientists that’s usually reserved for actors and athletes.

“We’re so grateful that all of you sucked at sports,” said host Seth MacFarlane, the comedian and creator of “Family Guy,” during his introduction. “Cause if you could throw a football, we’d all have polio.”

Dozens of researchers working to advance our understanding of the universe, push the boundaries of mathematics and physics, and unravel the mysteries of disease won or split $3 million prizes.

The honorees included UC Berkeley’s Jennifer Doudna and Umeå University’s Emmanuelle Charpentier, for their work on CRISPR-Cas9, a precise gene editing tool that academics and companies alike are harnessing to develop new therapeutics for a wide range of diseases.

A group of sometimes-collaborating and oftentimes-competing physicists — including John Hopkins University’s Adam Riess, UC Berkeley’s Saul Perlmutter and Australian National University’s Brian Schmidt — were recognized for discovering that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate.

Alim-Louis Benabid, a neurosurgeon and emeritus professor at Joseph Fourier University, won for his work on deep-brain stimulation, a technique that has dramatically eased symptoms for patients with nervous system disorders like Parkinson’s disease.

Video during his award presentation showed a young boy thrashing in a wheelchair, unable to control his legs and arms.

In a moment that underscored the power of science to truly change lives, that now-young-man, Nicolas Berben, walked onto the stage and said to Dr. Benabid: “I would like to thank you for giving me and my family back a better life.”

 Neurosurgeon Alim-Louis Benabid, 23andMe’s Anne Wojciki, patient Nicolas Berben and Google’s Sergey Brin onstage at the 2015 Breakthrough Prizes ceremony.
Neurosurgeon Alim-Louis Benabid, 23andMe’s Anne Wojciki, patient Nicolas Berben and Google’s Sergey Brin onstage at the 2015 Breakthrough Prizes ceremony.
Steve Jennings/Getty Images for Breakthrough Prizes

(The full list of award recipients may be found here.)

The Breakthrough Prize Foundation was co-created and funded by some of the biggest names in the tech industry, including investor Yuri Milner and his wife, Julia Milner; Facebook’s Chief Executive Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan; co-founder Anne Wojcicki; Google co-founder Sergey Brin; Alibaba founder Jack Ma and his wife Cathy Zhang; and Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter.

Most of them were on hand Sunday evening, enjoying a meal prepared by Thomas Keller of the French Laundry and the musical interlude from Christina Aguilera.

The tables spread throughout the packed room, under the dome of NASA’s Hanger One, occasionally made for odd collisions between the worlds of tech, media, science and Hollywood: News Corp.’s Rupert Murdoch sat one seat away from actor John Hamm and alongside Elizabeth Holmes of Theranos, a blood-diagnostics company.

Other celebrity presenters that evening included the stars of two science feature films this year: Eddie Redmayne, who plays cosmologist Stephen Hawking in “The Theory of Everything,” and Benedict Cumberbatch, who stars as Alan Turing, the godfather of computer scientist and World War II codebreaker, in “The Imitation Game.”

Cumberbatch presented the math awards alongside Zuckerberg, prompting the zinger of the evening from MacFarlane: “Now Mark Zuckerberg didn’t crack the German code, but he did take down some Aryan twins.”

(A solid runner up was: “The Breakthrough Prize is like every other awards show, except no one thanks God.”)

Hosts and attendees both stressed that one of the most important goals of the event is to underscore the potential of science and inspire others to pursue careers in the field.

“We all know, okay, Michael Jordan was amazing,” Wojcicki said along the rope line. “But there are all these scientists who touch our daily lives and we don’t even know who they are. Scientists are awesome and we want people to recognize the great things happening in science and inspire people to also make a difference in the world.”

Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk added: “It is important to celebrate science and to create role models for science that kids want to emulate.”

“For the benefit of humanity, we want breakthroughs in science that help us improve standards of living, cure disease, make life better,” he said. “I’d rather a super-smart, creative kid went into developing breakthrough technologies that improve the world rather than, say, went to Wall Street.”

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