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Silicon Valley traded in its hoodies for tuxedos on Sunday evening at the annual Breakthrough Prize Ceremony at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.
Google co-founder Sergey Brin, YouTube chief Susan Wojcicki, former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and dozens of others walked the red carpet for the so-called “Oscars of science,” during which 20 scientists were recognized and awarded some $22 million for their work.
The evening began with cocktails and mingling (Mayer was seen chatting with California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom in between photo ops), then continued with dinner under the supermoon inside a glass-roofed hangar (21st Century Fox executive chairman Lachlan Murdoch and investor Laurene Powell Jobs were seated at the same table) and concluded with a ceremony presided over by Morgan Freeman.
During the 90-minute show, which aired live on the National Geographic Channel and was simulcast on YouTube, the year’s laureates were given their moment in the spotlight.
Freeman set a serious tone from the start, inviting the attendees to journey back to the 1600s and the birthplace of the idea that “to discover the truth, you must question everything.” The concept of truth and the search for answers was a theme that ran throughout the evening, as discoveries in the fields of life sciences, physics and mathematics were recognized.
Presenters of the awards represented a mix of celebrity (Ashton Kutcher, Mila Kunis, Kerry Washington), athletics (Katy Ledecky, John Urschel) and technology (23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki, Instagram CEO Kevin Systrom). Wiz Khalifa and cellist Nana Ou-Yang provided a musical interlude with a rendition of “See You Again.”
When Scandal star Washington took the stage with Brin, she continued the talk of truth, noting the men and women who had participated in the March for Science earlier this year. “Imagine this, they took a stand for the enlightenment values of reason, evidence, respect for the truth,” the actress said. “This is not just a matter of principal, it is truly a matter of life and death, because sciences remains the only tool we have to understand the diseases that affect our bodies and our minds.” Brin then introduced a video package honoring Breakthrough Prize laureate Don Cleveland, who was recognized for his ALS research.
Russian entrepreneur and investor Yuri Milner founded the Breakthrough Prize in 2012 to give recognition to scientists whose work might not otherwise be celebrated. He has since recruited Brin, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg (who sat out the event this year because it fell during his paternity leave), Anne Wojcicki and Tencent CEO Pony Ma as sponsors. In six years, the organization has awarded nearly $200 million in prizes.
This year’s winners — the Breakthrough Prize in life sciences went to Joanne Chory, Cleveland, Kazutoshi Mori, Kim Nasmyth and Peter Walter; the Breakthrough Prize in fundamental physics went to NASA’s WMAP team; and the Breakthrough Prize in mathematics went to Christopher Hacon and James McKernan — split $22 million among them. (At $3 million a piece, it is the largest individual monetary prize in science.) Many said it would help them support their families and continue their work.
Moments before guests began to filter out into the brisk Northern California evening (grabbing a specialty chocolate bar as their party favor on their way to the waiting chauffeured SUVs), Freeman left the audience with a final thought. “As 2017 comes to its end, let us look forward to the breakthroughs of 2018 and celebrate the new,” he said. “As we do so, let us never forget that the search for truth is never over and the survival of truth is never assured. We have to choose — do we stand with those who wish to suppress the truth or stand with those who seek it. The answer is clear to me, to us and to those who love knowledge and who we honor tonight.”
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