Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, left, and Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, who set up the Breakthrough prizes in 2012. Photograph: Jeff Chiu/AP
By Ian Sample Science editor, the Guardian
Science is starting to pay big for a small minority who land major prizes. At a ceremony in California on Sunday night, six researchers became substantially wealthier when they were handed Breakthrough prizes, set up by the Russian billionaire Yuri Milner along with some of the biggest names in Silicon Valley.
Among those honoured were Karl Deisseroth of Stanford University and Edward Boyden of MIT for developing a procedure called optogenetics – a means of turning neurons on and off using light. They took home $3m (£2m) apiece for winning the Breakthrough prize in life sciences.
The same prize winnings went to John Hardy, who studies Alzheimer’s disease at University College London; Helen Hobbs, of the University of Texas South-western medical centre, for discovering gene variants linked to cholesterol; Svante Pääbo at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig for reading Neanderthal and other ancient genomes; and Ian Agol, a mathematician at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, for his work on problems that language cannot easily convey: virtual Haken, virtual fibering conjectures and tameness.
A group of 1,300 researchers won the Breakthrough prize in fundamental physics, but the $3m will be shared among five team leaders whose experiments confirmed that ghostly subatomic particles called neutrinos have mass. The same landmark discovery won the Nobel prize in physics this year.
In keeping with Milner’s aim of raising scientists to rock star status in the eyes of the public, the Breakthrough prizes – sometimes called the Oscars of science – were handed out at a ceremony at Hangar One in Silicon Valley hosted by Seth MacFarlane, the creator of Family Guy.
Pharrell Williams was down to perform, with Russell Crowe, Hilary Swank and Lily Collins among the guest presenters. The plan for the evening, with a theme of “life in the universe”, included a live video link to the Nasa astronaut Scott Kelly on the International Space Station.
The prizes, totalling $21.9m this year – taking the total handed out to more than $160m since they were established in 2012 – are backed by Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and his partner, Priscilla Chan, Google’s Sergey Brin, Anne Wojcicki of 23andme, and Jack Ma of Alibaba.com and his wife, Cathy Zhang. Unlike Nobel prizes, the Breakthrough prizes are explicitly directed at researchers who are still active in their fields.
Hardy, nicknamed Scruffy by his former colleagues – he was once crowned the worst dressed scientist in the field at a major neuroscience conference – won the prize for his discovery of genetic mutations that give rise to early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, and for inspiring new treatments for preventing the disease.
He said he was having bacon and eggs in his kitchen one Saturday morning when Mahlon DeLong, a US neurologist from the prize committee, called with the news of his win. “I was speechless. It was a 15-minute call that changed my life. I had to have another cup of coffee,” he said.
Hardy is the most cited Alzheimer’s researcher in Britain, and may be the most storied too. He once rang up a $1,000 bill at an Osaka karaoke bar, drinking whiskey and singing Yellow Submarine, while in the city for a conference. One tale has him travelling with a colleague and mistakenly picking up the wrong suitcase before retiring to bed. The next day, Hardy appeared in the other man’s clothes. “He said he just thought his wife had bought him some new clothes,” a former colleague, Karen Duff, told the journal Nature Medicine in 2004.
He made a major breakthrough in 1990 at Imperial College London when his team found mutations that helped to explain how amyloid plaques form in the brain. Later, he showed that tangles of a protein called tau appeared to happen as the disease progressed. It was part of a strategy to understand the order in which Alzheimer’s takes hold.
After making the discovery, Hardy hoped that a treatment for Alzheimer’s would not be far behind. But so far, there are no good treatments for dementia. “It’s humbling to realise that it’s a lot easier to understand what’s going wrong than it is to correct it. It’s difficult turning understanding into treatment,” he said.
Faced with the daunting prospect of the ceremony, Hardy bought his first tuxedo two weeks ago. He said before the ceremony: “I’m nervous about the whole thing. I’m a jeans and T-shirt type of person.”
Asked what he might do with the windfall, Hardy said he would put £50,000 towards UCL’s new dementia research institute, but added: “I’ve got a Honda Jazz and I’m not changing that. I’ve got very inexpensive tastes.”
Pääbo, who also had to rush out and buy his first tuxedo, heard he had won the prize while on a family holiday in Sweden. “The phone went while I was driving and my my wife said don’t take the call, but I took it anyway, and I’m glad I did, otherwise it would have gone to the next guy on the list,” he said.
With his team in Leipzig, Pääbo has led the field of ancient DNA, and pieced together genomes from Neanderthals, their cousins the Denisovans, and another human relative that lived 430,000 years ago in what are now the Atapuerca mountains of Spain.
One of the main thrusts of Pääbo’s work is to compare the DNA code of modern humans with Neanderthals to reveal the specific mutations that make Homo sapiens stand out. “Those genetic changes are probably hiding some key functional changes that are crucial to what makes humans so special. We developed technology and culture which allowed us to colonise the whole planet,” he said.
Ian Agol won the Breakthrough prize in mathematics for proving two famous conjectures in topology, a branch of maths that deals with how shapes transform into each other. The problems were among 23 mapped out in 1982 by the late Bill Thurston, a Fields medallist and pioneer in the field of so-called 3 manifolds, where spheres, cubes and other 3D objects can be embedded in higher dimensional landscapes.
Agol said he was honoured to join the list of previous maths prize winners. “The first five prizewinners are some of the best mathematicians around. I don’t really feel qualified to be in that group,” he said.
Agol, 45, was not awarded the Fields medal, which is given to researchers under 40 years old and is considered the most prestigious maths prize. “Mathematics has gotten to the point where if you want to get a Fields medal, you have to be a genius, a prodigy. Some of my best work has been over the age of 40. Hopefully this might encourage people that might not be prodigies to work on hard problems when they are older,” he said.
A haul of $100,000 prizes were handed out to more junior researchers, including André Arroja Neves, a mathematician at Imperial College London, who helped solve the 50-year-old Willmore conjecture. Another junior mathematician, Peter Scholze, of Bonn University in Germany, declined a maths prize.