Amid Political Ad Controversy, Mark Zuckerberg Headlines "Oscars of Science" Ceremony

Lenny Kravitz and Mark Zuckerberg attend the 8th Annual Breakthrough Prize Ceremony - Getty -H 2019
Rich Fury/Getty Images

The Breakthrough Prize awarded over $20 million in recognition of achievements in science and math on Sunday, with the help of some A-list stars and tech billionaires.

Mark Zuckerberg, who has made headlines recently over his defense of Facebook's featuring political ads — which included a tense standoff with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — returned to friendlier territory on Sunday night as he led the 2020 Breakthrough Prize ceremony in Silicon Valley. 

Dubbed the "Oscars of Science," the event, held at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain Valley, California, awarded over $20 million in recognition of achievements in science and mathematics this year, and is sponsored by Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan, along with Google co-founder Sergey Brin, 23and Me founder Anne Wojcicki, Chinese tech giant Ma Huateng and tech investor Yuri Milner and wife Julia. 

Zuckerberg kicked off the night alongside Milner, who told the audience that the 90-minute show, which is aired live on National Geographic and YouTube, "is about honoring this important work and the power science has to reveal hidden worlds," adding that "many of us in this room have spent a lot of time thinking about the future, and we all know that the future depends on science. As a culture, our progress and prosperity depend on attaching a high value to science and on passing that value onto the next generation."

Overseeing the celebration from his table at the dead center of the room, Zuckerberg also found himself the butt of many of host James Corden's jokes, who took the stage introducing himself as "the third Winklevoss twin" and teased during his monologue, "in this room we have some of the smartest minds and the worst haircuts in history," with the camera cutting to the Facebook CEO. 

The star-studded ceremony, now in its eighth year, also welcomed Drew Barrymore, Allison Janney, Edward Norton, Taraji P. Henson, Tyra Banks and Karlie Kloss as presenters, with performances by Lenny Kravitz and 

"I find it fascinating and interesting; this is not my field," Kravitz laughingly told The Hollywood Reporter on the red carpet ahead of the award show. "I think it’s also very important to inspire young people who want to get into the sciences. There’s so much pushing kids to go in so many other directions, whether it be sports or be Hollywood — in music, acting — but we need as much help as we can. We live in a world where we need great solutions for great problems." 

Norton echoed the same message, saying that he studied physics and astronomy in college and has been interested in it ever since, and wants to pass that interest along to a younger generation. 

"We pay a lot of attention to people who are in movies and music and play sports, 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," the star said. "I think the idea that you should create ceremony and celebration around that — at least at the same level of, say, the Academy Awards — is a great idea." 

Henson, who played NASA scientist Katherine Johnson in Hidden Figures, teased that the movie had seemingly become so important that "Silicon Valley invited me here," and that she wanted to be an example that the job of an actor is about more than just acting. 

Taking part in these science and tech events, happening outside of the Los Angeles bubble, "make people look at us and go, 'Oh, they care too,' because I actually really do care," Henson said. "Even though I’m in an industry that looks really plastic and fake, I care, I’m a human and I care about other humans." 

Onstage, the show also incorporated some science-friendly film clips, including scenes from Hidden Figures, Star Trek and E.T., which Barrymore, when she came out to present, teased, "I seem to find myself at an actual NASA base alongside some incredible earthlings, both male and female, who are capable of figuring out how E.T. could phone home, or maybe just post vacation pics on intergalactic social media." 

Attendees also included First Man director Damien Chazelle, Paramount CEO Jim Gianopulos, Brian Grazer, David Simon and wife Katherine McPhee. The night's biggest stars, though, were the honorees, which included the Event Horizon Telescope Team, who took the first-ever photo of a black hole, winning the Breakthrough Prize in fundamental physics, as well as Breakthrough Prize in life sciences winners Jeffrey M. Friedman, F. Ulrich Hartl and Arthur L. Horwich, David Julius and Virginia Man-Yee Lee, and Breakthrough Prize in mathematics winner Alex Eskin. With each winner receiving $3 million apiece, it is the largest individual monetary prize in science.

As the Hollywood crowd wrapped up a night of rubbing elbows with scientists and tech billionaires, Corden reminded the crowd, "Lenny Kravitz is up there but you are the rock stars… this is the night to show those obnoxious high school bullies that everyone secretly hated who really wins in the end."