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Scientists awarded $22 million in Breakthrough Prizes

Mila Kunis (left) and Ashton Kutcher (right) with 2018 Breakthrough Prizes in Life Sciences winner Kim Nasmyth from the University of Oxford. Photo: Peter Barreras / Invision / AP

This year's Breakthrough Prizes — started in 2012 by tech investor Yuri Milner and backed by Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, Google's Sergey Brin, 23andMe cofounder Anne Wojcicki and Tencent cofounder Pony Ma — went to researchers working in cell biology, astrophysics, neurobiology, plant biology, and mathematics.

The prizes: Seven $3 million awards and six $100,000 prizes for physicists and mathematicians early in their careers were presented on Sunday in Silicon Valley. They're the largest monetary prizes for fundamental scientific research and, unlike the roughly $1 million Nobel Prizes, recognize mathematicians.

Why it matters: "The point is not to make rock stars of us, but of the science itself," Johns Hopkins University physicist and awardee Charles Bennett told the Guardian. "I don't think people realize how big a role science plays in their lives."

The winners:

  • Joanne Chory from The Salk Institute for Biological Studies and Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Over the past 30 years, she has studied the genetic and molecular mechanisms underpinning a plant's response to light. Chory is now trying to apply those findings to breed plants that can remove 20 times more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere than they usually do. Go deeper: Popular Mechanics Avery Thompson on Chory's big plan to combat climate change.
  • Kazutoshi Mori from Kyoto University and Peter Walter from the University of California, San Francisco and Howard Hughes Medical Institute, who discovered a "quality-control system" in cells that allows them to detect misfolded or unfolded proteins that can cause diseases and then signal the cell to correct them.
  • Kim Nasmyth from the University of Oxford, "for elucidating the sophisticated mechanism that mediates the perilous separation of duplicated chromosomes during cell division and thereby prevents genetic diseases such as cancer."
  • Don Cleveland from the University of California, San Diego for his work on the molecular mechanisms of Lou Gehrig's disease and discoveries about the role of the brain's glia cells in neurodegeneration.
  • The 27-member team of astrophysicists behind the WMAP space telescope used to map the radiant heat leftover from the Big Bang. The team's five leaders were recognized: Charles Bennett from Johns Hopkins University, Gary Hinshaw from the University of British Columbia, and Norman Jarosik, Lyman Page and David Spergel, all from Princeton University.
  • Mathematicians Christopher Hacon from the University of Utah and James McKernan from the University of California, San Diego for contributions to birational algebraic geometry. As Kerry Dolan puts it in Forbes, "While it's almost impossible to visualize beyond even 3 dimensions, Hacon and McKernan use algebra to establish the rules for projecting objects from 1000+ dimensions onto lower-dimensional surfaces."

Early-career physicists Christopher Hirata (Ohio State University), Andrea Young (University of California, Santa Barbara) and Douglas Stanford (Institute for Advanced Study and Stanford University) were also recognized along with mathematicians Aaron Naber (Northwestern University), Maryna Viazovska (École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne), Zhiwei Yun (Yale University) and Wei Zhang (Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Columbia University).