Here are this year’s Breakthrough Prize Winners

On Sunday, November 3, at the 8th annual Breakthrough Prize Awards, hundreds of scientists will win their share of $10 million in awards for their outstanding work in the fields of Fundamental Physics, Life Sciences, and Mathematics.

Breakthrough Prize was founded by DST Global partner and billionaire Yuri Milner, who has a particular passion for the sciences. In fact, Milner has invested $100 million of his own money to the related, but separate, Breakthrough Initiative, a multi-strategy approach to identifying intelligent extraterrestrial life.

Milner sees the Breakthrough Prize as the ‘Oscars of Science,’ and the award has grown tremendously in significance among the scientific community. Not only does the Breakthrough Prize rival the Nobel in terms of monetary awards (the Nobel is roughly $1 million), it is also beholden to less stringent rules than the Nobel, which requires real world observation of a theory to be awarded.

So without any further ado, here are the 2020 Breakthrough Prize winners:

Fundamental Physics:

The Event Horizon Telescope Team
For the first image of a supermassive black hole, taken by means of an Earth-sized alliance of telescopes.

You may remember seeing the news of the first-ever image of a black hole being captured by scientists on the Event Horizon Telescope team. Not only was this an incredible feat of collaboration — it took 347 astrophysicists across 60 institutions in 20 different countries using eight high-powered telescopes to pull it off — but it also gave us our first real look at the massive M87 black hole.

Each of the scientists who worked on the project will split the prize.

Life Sciences:

Jeffrey M. Friedman (The Rockefeller University)
For the discovery of a new endocrine system through which adipose tissue signals the brain to regulate food intake.

Since he discovered the molecular pathway that regulates body fat in 1994, Friedman has been uncovering the genetic and hormonal pathways that regulate when, what and how much we eat, aiming to put an end to fat-shaming.

Franz-Ulrich Hartl (Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry) and Arthur L. Horwich (Yale University)
For discovering functions of molecular chaperones in mediating protein folding and preventing protein aggregation.

Hartl and Horwich discovered the intra-cellular machinery that support proteins as they properly fold into their precise shapes within the body. As humans age, that machinery gets sloppier and results in protein clumping, which creates an environment ripe for cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. Because of this discovery, researchers are investigating how to keep that cell machinery working smoothly as we age.

David J. Julius (University of California, San Francisco)
For discovering molecules, cells, and mechanisms underlying pain sensation.

Julius has taken our understanding of pain to a much deeper level, looking at the cellular signaling mechanisms around how our bodies signal pain to our brain. For example, Julius’ work led to his discovery of the fact that chili peppers share a signaling pathway with things like a hot stove, telling your brain that something is ‘burning hot’ even if your tongue isn’t literally near fire. Through this work, his team is building the foundation for a new wave of non-opioid precision analgesics to deal with the chronic pain of IBS, arthritis, cancer, etc.

Virginia Man-Yee Lee (University of Pennsylvania)
For identifying TDP43 as a key protein aggregating in the cytoplasm in frontotemporal lobular dementia and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and for capitalizing on the toxicity of alpha-synuclein to gain insight into cellular drivers of Parkinson’s disease and multiple system atrophy.

Dr. Lee and her team developed the tau hypothesis, which posited that the cellular tangles found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients might themselves be the cause of the neurons not firing properly. They worked to replicate the pathological evolution of the tau proteins that cause these tangles, giving neuroscientists and researchers a more thorough framework to develop treatments.


Alex Eskin (University of Chicago)
For revolutionary discoveries in the dynamics and geometry of moduli spaces of Abelian differentials, including the proof of the “magic wand theorem” with Maryam Mirzakhani.

Eskin worked with famous Iranian mathematician Maryam Mirzakhni, before her death in 2017, via Skype to develop theorems of dynamical, moduli spaces. Here’s what Alex had to say about the five-year process: “Like climbers on a mountain that had never been scaled, we could see the summit. But then we got stuck in a deep ravine for about a year-and-a-half, before going to the other side to create another path. That path didn’t get us to the summit either; but we had developed the tools to go back, build a bridge across the ravine, and make our final assent.”

Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics

Sergio Ferrara (CERN), Daniel Z. Freedman (MIT and Stanford), Peter van Nieuwenhuizen (Stony Brook University)
For the invention of supergravity, in which quantum variables are part of the description of the geometry of spacetime.

The discovery of supergravity in 1976 has yet to be empirically proven, which has kept the achievement out of the running for a Nobel prize despite its influence over the development of string theory and the advancement of physics as a whole.

Alongside the $3 million awards for each category of Breakthrough Prize, the awards also recognize early-career achievements in the form of $100K New Horizons prizes for physics, life sciences and mathematics.

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