Scene of a star-studded event honoring scientists. (Eddie Codel / Flickr)
Scene of a star-studded event honoring scientists. (Eddie Codel / Flickr)

You may not have been invited. No worries, you can catch it on TV early next year: The second Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences is taking place tonight at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View.

The event has been referred to as the Academy Awards of science, for good reason: Six winning scientists, as well as the winner of the Fundamental Physics Prize, will get red-carpet treatment from an assortment of dazzling celebs, both of the Silicon Valley kind (Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, Sergey Brin, etc.) and the Hollywood kind (Kevin Spacey will host; presenters include Glenn Close, Rob Lowe and Conan O’Brien). The French Laundry, no less, is catering the gala.

The prizes recognize excellence in research aimed at curing intractable diseases and extending human life. A special symposium at UC San Francisco follows on Friday, and will highlight the latest advances in cancer, genetics, neurobiology and stem cell research.

Who knew science could be so glam?

And lucrative. Each prize is worth $3 million. They’re bankrolled by venture capitalist Yuri Milner, Alibaba’s Jack Ma, 23andMe’s Anne Wojcicki, Calico CEO Arthur Levinson, and Zuckerberg and Brin.

Milner is the catalyst behind Breakthrough; the one-time physics major at Moscow State University, said The Guardian, likes the idea of bestowing fame and fortune on those working in the sciences:

His reasoning is that the public puts an unhealthy emphasis on figures in the world of entertainment and sport, while fundamental science gets neglected.

“It’s not a good thing for society at large,” he says. “There was a time when people like Einstein were well known and recognised by the public. They had a lot of influence.” A lack of collective interest in fundamental science means people don’t think as much about “the big questions” of life and the universe as they could. “What is the universe? What is energy, matter, the stuff of life? Where did they come from, how do they work?” The ideas posed as answers, he says, can be “unifying”.



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