Scientists and stars align at Moffett Field for Breakthrough Prize | News | Mountain View Online |


Scientists and stars align at Moffett Field for Breakthrough Prize


For one extraordinary night a year, the Breakthrough Prize (or as organizers call it, the "Oscars of Science") brings the trajectory of three very different social spheres into alignment: science, tech and Hollywood.

It's a culture clash in the best possible way. And the venue itself reflects this, juxtaposing red carpet glamour a few feet from Hangar One, a steely skeleton skinned of its siding almost a decade ago.

Sponsored by tech tycoons and attended by a myriad of singers, actors and athletes, the Breakthrough Prize recognizes researchers for their achievements in the life sciences, fundamental physics, and mathematics. This year, each of the 10 prize winners earned a trophy shaped like a toroid (a natural form found in everything from black holes to DNA coils) and $3 million.

Acting as trailblazers on the red carpet, the guests of honor arrived first. In preparation for the festivities, each had shed their lab coats for tuxes and tracked down their "fancy event" ties.

Though the awards recognize scientists from around the world, one of the first winners to make an appearance was a visiting professor from Stanford University. Daniel Z. Freedman, 80, is one of the developers of the theory of supergravity.

"We need to learn the next steps beyond it," he said of current discoveries in the field of particle physics. "This is where nature is hiding its secrets."

Another local professor, David Julius of University of California at San Francisco, was recognized for his research with chili peppers and the molecular mechanisms that communicate temperature and pain sensation.

"I've always been interested in the interaction between natural products and people," he said. "It's where chemistry and biology and anthropology meet." As for the event, he said, "It's not my natural habitat, but it's kind of fun!"

That sentiment seemed shared by others. Though they may be able to converse about constellations, these researchers seemed a little less certain about talking to the stars that reside on Earth. "Sitting next to celebrities is not my normal MO," chuckled Sheperd S. Doeleman, head of the team that captured the first-ever image of a black hole. This achievement required collaboration with 347 scientists, using radio telescopes worldwide, and over a decade of planning. "A big part of what we do as explorers is we have to come back and tell the tale," he said. "We have to come back and describe what we've seen."

"I'm a little bit overwhelmed," admitted 17-year-old Jeffery Chen from Burlingame, the Breakthrough Junior Challenge winner honored for his video on neutrino astronomy. "But I'll try to take this one step at a time!" Despite the nerves, his face brightened recalling how his fascination with outer space originated during a Cub Scout field trip to the planetarium.

As the scientists settled into their seats, the celebrities began to materialize on the red carpet. There was a marked difference in the way this second group carried themselves. The ease in which they conversed with the press. The way they flowed about in tuxes and dresses as if they wore them around the house. The effortless stride of ladies in pencil-thin stilettos walking as if they'd worn nothing else since grade school.

One of the more vocal stars of the evening, Tyra Banks, animatedly shared her son York's love of science. "He was talking about symbiosis the other day, and I had to Google it! Now he's talking about stalactites and stalagmites, and he's not even 4 yet." She expressed a desire to use her reputation to endorse the sciences. "We're able to use each other's platforms to help amplify that message, particularly for the younger generation."

Actor Edward Norton seemed to have his own son, Atlas, on his mind while answering questions. "We pay a lot attention to people who make movies and music, and people who play sports," he said. "And I think kids tend to look up disproportionately to people who do those things and not enough to their teachers and to people who are really actually achieving landmark work that's going to affect people for generations ... (To) create a ceremony and celebration around that at least at the same level as the Academy Awards is a great idea."

As the opening of the ceremony neared, the event's sponsors, Silicon Valley's CEOs and venture capitalists, arrived, in adult clothes rather than their customary branded tees and hoodies. Backers included Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan, venture capitalists Yuri and Julia Milner, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, Tencent CEO Ma Huateng and 23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki.

As the lights dimmed, late night talk show host James Corden introduced himself as the master of ceremonies and immediately buoyed the mood with a steady stream of comedic commentary. "This is your night, people!" he rallied the audience. "Go crazy! Which in the Silicon Valley means putting a little extra butter in your Bulletproof coffee. Break out that fancy fleece jacket! Take an extra dose of whatever Joe Rogan gave you at Burning Man!"

In one of the event's more humorous moments, Corden observed, "Look around this room -- we have some of the smartest minds and the worst haircuts in the history of humanity." The camera promptly trained its eye on Mark Zuckerburg and his micro-bangs. Later, Corden personally thanked Jeffrey M. Friedman (discoverer of the hormone leptin which shapes when, what and how much we eat) with jars of candy and a large cake with blue icing proclaiming "Thank you Jeffrey for your work on obesity!"

Though less accustomed to stages and spotlights, the scientists spoke about their accomplishments with enthusiasm. In his excitement, one winning researcher entirely forgot the microphone and tried to talk to the crowd directly.

Throughout the ceremony, videos introduced the work of each winner. Hollywood-level cinematography, soundtracks and summaries aided in making concepts such as "multiple contributions to ergodic theory, most notably the solution of the weak Pinsker conjecture" and "discovering functions of molecular chaperones in mediating protein folding and preventing protein aggregation" a little easier for an audience to comprehend.

Movie clips featuring three of the attending actors were also included. One scene depicted a tiny Drew Barrymore gawking at levitating items during her breakout role in "E.T." Taraji Hensen showed off her glasses and math skills working a chalkboard in "Hidden Figures." And LeVar Burten modeled his iconic yellow uniform and wraparound sunglasses as Star Trek's Lt. Com. Geordi La Forge.

"The number of real-world technologies inspired by the imaginary universe of "Star Trek" are pretty impressive," LeVar said during the ceremony. "Kirk's communicator became the flip cellphone. My crew used tablet computers on the Enterprise before Apple invented the iPad -- I'm pretty sure they owe me money. And scientists and technologists are working to turn Geordi La Forge's visor into prosthetic devices for the blind."

Lenny Kravits performed "Here To Love," uniting the audience in a swaying sea of phone flashlights.'s classic "Hall of Fame" made for a fitting finale as all the winners joined him on stage.

For a full list of winners, go to the website.

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Short story writers wanted!

The 34th Annual Palo Alto Weekly Short Story Contest is now accepting entries for Adult, Young Adult and Teen categories. Send us your short story (2,500 words or less) and entry form by March 27, 2020. First, Second and Third Place prizes awarded in each category.

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