Breakthrough Foundation announces 2017 prizes in math, physics and life sciences

The Breakthrough Foundation has announced a new set of winners of their awards, including recipients in mathematics, physics and life sciences. The founders of the Breakthrough Prize are Sergey Brin (co-founder of Google) and Anne Wojcicki (co-founder of 23andme), Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan (founder of Facebook and his spouse), Yuri Milner and Julia Milner (Russian venture capitalist and his spouse), and Jack Ma and Cathy Zhang (founder of Alibaba and his spouse).

Mathematics prize

The Breakthrough Prize in mathematics (USD$3 million) was awarded to Jean Bourgain of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Bourgain’s work touches on a wide range of topics, including the geometry of Banach spaces, high-dimensional convexity, harmonic analysis, ergodic theory and nonlinear partial differential equations (with applications to mathematical physics). In recent years he has published on average 10 papers per year. He previously received the Fields Medal, one of the highest honors in mathematics.

One particularly interesting recent result of his is the “L2 decoupling theorem,” published in collaboration with Bourgain’s colleague Ciprian Demeter. Among other things, their result allows for the accurate estimation of various exponential integrals and exponential sums. An introduction to the L2 decoupling theorem is available in an ArXiv paper written by Borgain and Demeter.

Physics prizes

The 2017 Breakthrough Prizes in Fundamental Physics (USD$3 million each) were awarded to Joseph Polchinski of the University of California, Santa Barbara, and Andrew Strominger and Cumrun Vafa, both of Harvard University. In 1995, Polchinski showed that string theory contains objects of two or more dimensions, called “branes.” In 1996 Strominger and Vafa used string theory to calculate the entropy (information content) of a black hole, confirming some predictions by Stephen Hawking that black holes leak radiation and ultimately explode.

Also honored in this year’s Breakthrough Prize festivities were the recipients of a previously announced Special Prize in Fundamental Physics. This was awarded to Ronald Drever and Kip Thorne of the California Institute of Technology, and Rainer Weiss of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for their pioneering work in the conception, design and execution of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) experiment, which on 11 February 2016 announced the detection of gravitational waves emitted from the collision of two black holes. The three physicists share a USD$1 million award, and the 1,012 members of the LIGO team share an additional USD$2 million.

Life science prizes

Five Breakthrough Prizes (USD $3 million each) were awarded in the life sciences, in each case to a researcher in the field of molecular biology:

  1. Stephen J. Allege of Harvard, for this work in explaining how cells sense and then respond to DNA damage, which may have implications for cancer research.
  2. Harry F. Noller of U.C. Santa Cruz, who helped decipher the structure and function of ribosomes and RNA.
  3. Roeland Nusse of Stanford and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, who discovered the first Wnt gene, which plays an important role in embryo, stem cell and bone development, and also in the progression of cancer.
  4. Huda Zoghbi of Bayler College of Medicine and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, who discovered that a mutation to the SCA1 gene can result in a serious neurodegenerative disorder. She also helped uncover the cause of Rett syndrome, which affects young girls.
  5. Yoshinori Ohsumi of the Tokyo Institute of Technology, who helped uncover how cells recycle themselves.

New Horizon prizes for young researchers

In addition to the USD$3 million prizes mentioned above, the Breakthrough Foundation also awarded six USD$100,000 New Horizon prizes to young researchers. The three physics prizes were awarded to Asimina Arvanitaki of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Ontario, Canada, Peter Graham of Stanford and Surjeet Rajendran of the University of California, Berkeley (who split one prize); Simone Giombi of Princeton University and Xi Yin of Harvard University (who split another prize); and Frans Pretorius of Princeton University.

The three mathematics New Horizon prizes were awarded to Mohammed Abouzaid of Columbia University; Hugo Duminil-Copin of the University of Geneva in Switzerland; and Benjamin Elias of the University of Oregon and Geordie Williamson of Kyoto University (who split one prize).

Additional details on this year’s Breakthrough Prizes are available at the Breakthrough Foundation site, and in an article in the New York Times.

Congratulations to all of these fine recipients!

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