Reporter Journal / Chris Davis

Breakthrough Awards glitz up science's deepest digging

By Chris Davis (China Daily USA) Updated: 2015-11-11 06:16

Neutrinos. They're the most numerous particles in the universe, so small they're called "ghosts" and they zip through our bodies by the thousands of trillions per second. Scientists are even beginning to wonder if neutrinos are the reason matter exists in the first place.

Recognizing "major insights into the deepest questions of the Universe," the third Annual Breakthrough Prizes were handed out Sunday at an Academy Awards-like gala at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. And neutrinos were in the spotlight.

Breakthrough Awards glitz up science's deepest digging

Among the recipients was Nanjing-born physicist Yifang Wang, who runs the Daya Bay Reactor Neutrino Experiment for the Institute of High Energy Physics of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and works in tandem with Kam-Biu Luk,

Yifang's team will share the $3 million prize with four other teams of physicists working on the same mysterious little particle, including two — Arthur B. McDonald’s Sudbury group in Canada and Takaaki Kajita's Super-Kamiokande group in Japan — who just won the Nobel Prize in physics last month.

All told, the five teams number 1,377 neutrino scientists. Doing the math, that divvies up to about $2,178.65 per person — barely enough for a down payment on a new Hyundai, much less a particle accelerator.

Of course, it's not all about the money. Although you could argue that for the mathematics prize winner, Ian Agol of UC Berkeley, who presumably doesn't have to share his $3 million with anyone, it might be.

The Breakthrough Prize was the brainchild three years ago of Internet entrepreneur Yuri Milner and his wife Julia, who believed physicists didn't get their fair share of the celebrity spotlight. Other Silicon Valley heavies joined — Google’s Sergey Brin, Alibaba's Jack Ma, Anne Wojcicki of 23andMe, and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan.

The award categories also expanded to include life sciences and math, early career researchers, and a "Junior Challenge" to one scary-smart teenager (this year it went to 18-year-old Ryan Chester, of North Royalton, Ohio, who got a $250,000 scholarship for a video he made that explains Einstein’s theory of special relativity).

Under the New Horizons, or young physicists, category, Liang Fu at MIT and Xiao-Liang Qi at Stamford will share a $100,000 award with B. Andrei Bernevig at Princeton.

"Breakthrough Prize laureates are making fundamental discoveries about the universe, life and the mind," Yuri Milner said in a statement. "The fields of investigation are advancing at an exponential pace, yet the biggest questions remain to be answered."

Mark Zuckerberg said that by challenging conventional thinking and expanding knowledge over the long term, scientists can solve the biggest problems of our time. "The Breakthrough Prize honors achievements in science and math so we can encourage more pioneering research and celebrate scientists as the heroes they truly are," Zuckerberg said in a statement.

Unlike the stuffy and formal white-tie-and-tails Nobel Prize ceremony in Oslo every year, the Breakthroughs were handed out at a glitzy, star-studded gala. Seth MacFarlane served as host. Presenters included Academy Award winning actors Russell Crowe and Hillary Swank. Ten-time Grammy Award-winner Pharrell Williams performed.

An hour-long version of the event will be shown on Fox on Nov 29 and air globally via the National Geographic Channel in 171 countries and 45 languages.

In a phone interview, physicist Yifang Wang tried to explain to this reporter what his work accomplished. Neutrino scientists, apparently, set up shop near a working nuclear reactor because it's one spot, like the sun, where neutrinos are being produced fresh in mass quantities. Daya Bay has six reactors and Yifang’s team built their lab and operations nearby to detect neutrinos — eight detector modules, each 110 pounds.

His experiment managed to measure a certain "neutrino mixing angle" — the last unknown one — for the first time.

He said all of the five experiments winning awards were independent, some started in the 1990s, others in this century and they are very different. He said they share their "readouts" but not their "process". They publish results in journals and discuss the physics behind it.

Yifang said the award was good because "it will help build up trust in the community and also with our funding agencies so that probably in the future it is easier for us to get funding."

As Jack Ma put it: "Science is racing forward to meet the demands of the world's most critical issues and we have a duty to support it."

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