Scientists are the real 'rock stars'

Kevin Spacey, Conan O'Brien, share stage with great scientific minds at 2014 Breakthrough Awards

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.

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 former the CIA director, Gen. David Petraeus, posed for the cameras -- later telling the Mountain View 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 in an interview with the Voice. The general 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 neurobiologist 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 this 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."


Seven Breakthrough Prizes were awarded at the Dec. 12 ceremony -- one in the category of Fundamental Physics and six in the Life Sciences category.


Michael B. Green of the University of Cambridge, and John H. Schwarz, from the California Institute of Technology, were awarded the sole Breakthrough Prize for fundamental physics for helping make sense of string theory. According to Adam Rosenthal, a spokesman for the Breakthrough Foundation, the men are widely considered to have breathed new life into string theory -- a theoretical tool in the field of physics, which first emerged in the 1960s and was later dismissed as being mathematically incoherent. Green and Schwarz developed formulas that have made mathematical sense of string theory.


James Allison, a medical doctor at the Anderson Cancer Center, won for his discovery of a cancer treatment, known as a "T-cell checkpoint blockade." By blocking a molecule called CTLA-4 -- which cancer cells produce in order to hide from body's immune system -- a T-cell checkpoint blockade helps the body's immune system recognize cancer cells and fight them.

=+B Mahlon DeLong==, of Emory University, won "for defining the interlocking circuits in the brain that malfunction in Parkinson's disease." According to Rosenthal, DeLong discovered that a technique known as deep brain stimulation could help in the fight against Parkinson's.

Michael Hall, of the University of Basel, "really changed the prevailing thinking" on the mechanisms driving cell growth, Rosenthal said. Hall discovered target of rapamycin, or TOR, which plays an integral part in the growth of cells. His research is now being applied to cancer research.

Robert Langer, a David H. Koch Institute Professor at MIT, has been called "the Edison of molecular biology," Rosenthal said. His name is on more than 800 patents and over 1,000 published papers. He was awarded the Breakthrough Prize for his many contributions to the field, including the creation of innovative drug-delivery systems -- such as the "pharmacy on a chip," a small chip that can be embedded in a person's body and deliver precise amounts of drugs at the command of a remote control.

Richard Lifton, of Yale University and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, was recognized for his discovery of the biochemical mechanisms underpinning hypertension. Prior to his groundbreaking work, there was a debate among medical professionals over where hypertension originates, Rosenthal said. Lifton put this debate to rest.

Alexander Varshavsky, of the California Institute of Technology, was awarded for his work on the subject of "protein degradation." His work shed light on the process by which cells create proteins, as well as how they break them down and transform more complex proteins into simpler ones. His research has led to a greater understanding of how cells work and has applications in the fight against cancer.


Like this comment
Posted by JammyPants
a resident of Cuernavaca
on Dec 13, 2013 at 11:38 am

Man, all this glamour and glitz going on right here in Mountain View, and where was I? On my couch in pjs sipping tea. I guess I am on the XYZ list.

Like this comment
Posted by Doug Pearson
a resident of Blossom Valley
on Dec 13, 2013 at 5:29 pm

Sigh. I just found out the hard way that if I go to another web page (in this case to check out the 45! photos), my unfinished comment gets wiped out.

Your article is better than the Mercury News article, which deliberately discussed only the event and celebrities, ignoring the honorees. You at least mentioned two by name but only one, "Richard Lifton of Yale, ... for discovering the molecular cause of hypertension", got his prize this year. The other, "Cornelia Bargmann, a neurobiologist from Rockefeller University [for?]", got her prize last year.

At the end, the pictures included several of the winner(s) of the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, but without names or what their breakthrough was. $21 million worth of $3 million prizes were awarded--that says 7 prizes to me--not 1.

Like this comment
Posted by Dude
a resident of Bailey Park
on Dec 15, 2013 at 9:13 am

You do good work, Veronin.

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Posted by Cathy
a resident of Shoreline West
on Dec 16, 2013 at 9:34 am

So sad that this article centered on the Hollywood celebrities rather than the prize recipients. You say the scientists are the rock stars, but fail to give those stars their moments of fame. I located the recipients in another article and here they areā€¦ Congratulations to these scientists who have changed our lives!!!

For physics
Michael B. Green, University of Cambridge, and John H. Schwarz, California Institute of Technology, for opening new perspectives on quantum gravity and the unification of forces.
For life sciences
James Allison, MD Anderson Cancer Center, for the discovery of T cell checkpoint blockade as effective cancer therapy.
Mahlon DeLong, Emory University, for defining the interlocking circuits in the brain that malfunction in Parkinson's disease. This scientific foundation underlies the circuit-based treatment of Parkinson's disease by deep brain stimulation.
Michael Hall, University of Basel, for the discovery of Target of Rapamycin (TOR) and its role in cell growth control.
Robert Langer, David H. Koch Institute Professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for discoveries leading to the development of controlled drug-release systems and new biomaterials.
Richard Lifton, Yale University, Howard Hughes Medical Institute, for the discovery of genes and biochemical mechanisms that cause hypertension.
Alexander Varshavsky, California Institute of Technology, for discovering critical molecular determinants and biological functions of intracellular protein degradation.

Like this comment
Posted by Nick V
Mountain View Voice Staff Writer
on Dec 19, 2013 at 11:39 am

Nick V is a registered user.

Thanks for bringing that up, Cathy. We included all the winners and an extended explanation of their winning work in the print edition, out now. We have also updated the article on our website.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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