Saturday, December 28, 2013

The Breakthrough Prizes 2014

 The breakthrough prizes for fundamental physics and life sciences for 2014  were announced at a ceremony at the NASA, Hangar One building, at the NASA Ames Research Centre  in Mountain View, California, on December 12, 2013. This was the second function for the Milner fundamental physics prize -the first one was held on March 20th at the   Geneva International conference Centre, where the first nine 2012 awardees, Stephen Hawking, 6 CERN scientists ( for their role in the discovery of the Higgs particle)  and Polyakov were honored.  For the life sciences, this was the first function and hence, besides the 6  2014 breakthrough prizes in life sciences, and the 2014 breakthrough prize in fundamental physics (Michael Green and John Schwarz), the 11 initial  winners of the 2013 life sciences prizes were also honored.

The function was hosted by Kevin Spacey and had several other celebrities  from the American movie and TV industry including Conan O Brien, Glenn Close, Michael Hall, Anna Kendrick, Rob Lowe and Lana Del Rey. More of interest than the U.S. centric performances, (as compared to the Geneva show hosted by Morgan Freeman), were the Internet innovators and entrepreneurs - the charming and baby-faced Mark Zuckerberg  (of the Facebook  fame) and his wife Priscilla Chan,  Sergey Brin ( the Google co-founder) and his wife Anne Wojcicki, Larry Page (Google co-founder) and Jimmy Wales ( co-founder of Wikipedia), and of course, Yuri Milner, the founder of the Fundamental prize.

The format of the function this time, included  a fancy sit-down dinner, catered by Chef Thomas Keller and The French Laundry, for about 5000 invitees. Re the food, as a vegetarian and not a great connoisseur, I will not attempt to describe the food other than saying that it was fancy, but the  menu   should give an idea!

This was different from last time, when the guests had to go round Geneva in a state of semistarvation (refer Sunil Mukhi's blog). The composition of the invitees was also quite different. Last time, there were many scientists from CERN and from other places in Europe,
whereas this time, the invitees were mainly  Silicon valley entrepreneurs, besides the laureates and their families. The aim seems to be fund-raising for fundamental science and who better than silicon valley entrepreneurs to know the value of fundamental research?

This time, the new horizons prize in physics, awarded to promising junior researchers went to Shiraz Minwalla from TIFR, along with two others. These prizes were awarded at a lunch hosted by Mark Zuckerberg at the Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto. With no prior notice, the three awardees were given 2 minutes each to describe their work to a mixed audience including biologists, physicists and their family members.  The sartorial splendor of the scientists had to be seen to be believed, and shocked those used to their normal attire. Here you see Ashoke Sen and Shiraz Minwalla, in their full plumage.
The function ended with the announcement by Milner and Zuckerberg of a new three million dollar breakthrough prize in mathematics, whose details will be announced later.

A personal highlight for me was meeting Lucy Hawking. I am a fan of her children's science books co-authored with her father and came to know that she is finishing a new one on quantum computers very soon.

This blog post is by Sumathi Rao.