Every year, tech billionaires offer financial awards for some of the year’s most important science findings. A total of $21.6 million was awarded for breakthroughs in creating the first image of a black hole, determining the biological mechanisms of obesity, and discoveries in biochemistry and pain sensation.
Every galaxy is thought to have a black hole at its center. These gargantuan objects, so dense that even light itself can’t escape them, were thought to be impossible to image directly — after all, how can you photograph something that absorbs all the light around it? But the scientists from the international Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration managed to do so, bringing humanity an image from the brink of darkness itself.
Needless to say, the entire world tuned into the discovery and cherished it. Now, the team behind this landmark image have also received a Breakthrough 2020 Award.
Sometimes jovially called the “Oscars of Science,” the awards are offered by the Breakthrough Foundations’s sponsors, which include Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and wife Priscilla Chan, and Google founder Sergey Brin. Now in its eight running year, the Breakthrough Awards are quite possibly the most generous financial awards in science, with each prize being worth $3 million. For the first image of a supermassive black hole, taken by means of an Earth-sized alliance of telescopes, the Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration received $3 million — but they weren’t the only awardees.
Four Breakthrough prizes were awarded in the life sciences. Geneticist Jeffrey Friedman, one of the world’s leading obesity scientists, was recognized for discovering a hormone called leptin, which tells the brain to regulate appetite and dictates when we feel full. His research elucidated the “leptin system” operating below the level of consciousness and “will power” that regulates when, what and how much we eat.
David Julius discovered cellular mechanisms that produce pain sensation, laying the foundation for the next generation of chronic pain treatment. Among others, he also found that chili peppers and menthol trigger the same sensory receptors in the nervous system that ordinarily respond to heat and cold.
Meanwhile, Virginia Man-Yee Lee and Arthur Horwich individually carried landmark research on protein, helping us to better understand these building blocks of life.
Alex Eskin received the Breakthrough Award in Mathematics, for his work with the late Iranian Fields Medal-winning mathematician Maryam Mirzakhani. Together, they tackled the ‘billiard ball problem’, which considers the trajectories a billiard ball can take as it bounces around polygonal tables, and derived a so-called ‘magic wand theorem’ — which brings together aspects of topology, dynamical systems, and geometry to easily solve many previously stubborn mathematics problems.
In addition, three New Horizons in Physics and Mathematics were also given out to junior researchers.
The laureates will be recognized at a gala in the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, which will be broadcast live on National Geographic. The program will also include special lectures and presentations.