Mountain View Voice

News - December 20, 2013

'The Oscars of science'

Celebrities boost profile of accomplished scientists at 'Breakthrough Awards'

by Nick Veronin

A handful of Silicon Valley's most powerful CEOs and venture capitalists pooled their money to throw one heck of a party in celebration of science last week.

The 2014 Breakthrough Awards — a ceremony organized to honor major advancements in science — was held Dec. 12 at Moffett Field, inside the hulking skeletal remains of Hangar One.

The event was hosted by Kevin Spacey, and featured a bevy of high-profile guests — including Hollywood celebrities, media moguls, top public officials, Silicon Valley CEOs and even a pop singer. The idea, according to event organizers, was to make science sexy.

In his introductory remarks at the start of the ceremony, Spacey noted that as a nation, we idolize professional athletes and movie stars. However, he continued, scientists are "the true rock stars of our times."

And for a moment last Thursday night, he was right — as journalists from local, national and international outlets jockeyed to snap pictures and ask questions of celebrities like Spacey, as well as stars of the science and technology world.

Tech titans, media moguls, celebrities, musicians and a four-star general schmoozed with the press during a red carpet event before the event.

A total of $21 million was awarded to scientists who achieved advancements in fundamental physics and life sciences. Each winner took home a $3 million prize and a shiny globe-like trophy.

Funding for the event came from a variety of Silicon Valley's biggest names: Sergey Brin, Anne Wojcicki, Jack Ma, Cathy Zhang, Yuri and Julia Milner, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan.

In addition to recognizing the scientists for their work, and providing them with a hefty sum to assist in their continued research, Wojcicki said the event was intended to raise the profile of science on the whole. Wojcicki is CEO of the consumer genomics company 23andMe, and one of the events' main sponsors.

"I think this is genuinely going to transform how we view science," Wojcicki said at a press conference following the event.

Richard Lifton of Yale, who was awarded a Breakthrough Prize for discovering the molecular cause of hypertension, agreed with Wojcicki's assessment.

"I think one of the real strengths of tonight's program is to increase the awareness about what science brings to the public," Lifton said at the press conference. He touted the importance of public funding for science, noting that advancements in the treatment of HIV, cardio-vascular disease and cancer "have all come from the public support of science."

On the red carpet

The awards, which had been billed as "The Oscars of Science," had the feel of a swanky Hollywood affair.

In addition to securing Spacey as the host, the event was attended by a number of high profile names from the entertainment world, including a very funny and charming Conan O'Brien, and award-winning actors Glenn Close and Michael C. Hall.

Mountain View tech impresarios, including Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Paige, Khan Academy creator Sal Khan and Wojcicki, walked down the red carpet. Even the former CIA director, Gen. David Petraeus, posed for the cameras — later telling the Voice he loved the idea of bringing the glitz of Hollywood to an evening honoring scientists.

"I think it's terrific. I think it's how you elevate it into public recognition and it's how you get young people to recognize it, by turning it into a celebrity kind of event," Petraeus said. He added that he believes it is important to honor scientists for the work they do, because science is "what has propelled the United States in the past and it's going to continue to propel the United States in the future."

Pop singer Lana Del Rey, who would later perform her hit "Video Games" for the audience, made an appearance on the red carpet. In one of the night's more bizarre moments, she told the Voice that she came to the event because she has "a background in metaphysics."

Many of the scientists who made their way into the event walked past all of the flash bulbs without saying much. But Cornelia Bargmann, a neuro-biologist from Rockefeller University and one of the event's laureates, said she was hopeful that the high-profile event might "build a bridge" in the popular mind between the science that underpins consumer technology and the technology itself.

On the red carpet, Spacey was congenial, telling reporters from a variety of news organizations, including CNN and CBS, that he was pleased to host an event that brought prestige to the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. He praised the scientists and thinkers who help make the world a better place through their innovations in technology and medicine.

"Fifty years ago, the most famous person in the world was a scientist, named Albert Einstein," Spacey said. "He was a man who created and solved extraordinary things using his mind. And I think more kids should be encouraged to use their mind."

Google co-founder Brin said holding the event at Moffett Field, in the heart of Silicon Valley, was a good way to pay tribute to all of the companies innovating and conducting scientific research in the area.

"Silicon Valley does have this very disruptive culture, going back many decades," he told the Voice, adding that his company has "definitely benefited from the culture of entrepreneurs" that permeates Mountain View and the surrounding areas.

"I think scientific work and scientific breakthroughs are extraordinarily valuable to the world," Brin said, explaining why he felt it was important to help sponsor the event. "I think they should be rewarded as such. I hope that it will inspire a generation of scientists."

While reporters and photographers swooned over some, like Brin, Spacey and Close, late night personality O'Brien stole the show — cracking wise for the microphones and smiling broadly for the cameras.

He told one pack of reporters he was glad, as a lifelong nerd, to see that being geeky was so in vogue. "Back when I was in high school it was the jocks (that were cool)," O'Brien joked, adding that the tables have now turned. "I'm on the right side now."

As he approached the end of the red carpet, he asked if one reporter knew anything about Hangar One; the out-of-town journalist offered little in response to his question.

That's when the Voice reporter stepped in to educate him on the history of Hangar One and to ask him his thoughts on dirigibles

"Dirigibles?" he began, pausing for a split second before riffing off the question. "I think that's a fantastic way to travel. We should not have moved past the dirigible in the 1930s. We should return to the dirigible."

Email Nick Veronin at nveronin@mv-voice.com

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