Behind the Scenes at the Breakthrough Prizes, the Glitzy Oscars for Science
Here’s a red carpet conversation I’m pretty sure happened for the first time in history last night: At the Breakthrough Prize ceremony—where $22 million was handed out to winning scientists—NASA’s top science official John Grunsfeld held forth on the red carpet about the International Space Station, according to another reporter who later regaled me with the story. Space medicine, he apparently said, can get a little awkward. Without normal gravity, the urethra in male astronauts can get blocked, and the solution is to jam a catheter right into the bladder.
Oh sorry, did I gross you out? No, don’t leave! Science is glamorous! Science is cool! Science is like…Hollywood! At least, that’s the implicit message of the Breakthrough Prize, with a ceremony held at NASA’s Ames Research Center, hosted by Vanity Fair, and broadcast live on the National Geographic channel. (Conde Nast owns both Vanity Fair and WIRED.)
Alongside scientists on the red carpet walked tech royalty and actual famous people. Seth MacFarlane, who once hosted the Oscars, hosted the event. Same thing, probably! Pharrell performed his new single “Freedom.”
“I think science has to have the science Oscars,” says Yuri Milner, the billionaire tech investor who was the driving force behind the prizes. He set up the show in 2012, and has since convinced execs at Facebook, Google, and Alibaba to chip for the prize money. Each prize comes with $3 million and a trophy designed by the Danish-Icelandic sculptor Olafur Eliasson.
This year, the trophy winners included Karl Deisseroth and Ed Boyden for optogenetics, a technique for activating neurons with a beam of light. Mathematician Ian Agol won for his work in low-dimensional topology and geometric group theory, and a 1,370-person team of physicists won for figuring out the inner life of the subatomic neutrino. (Seven members of the neutrino teams were actually at the ceremony, though Milner assures me his office would be sending out 1,370 checks.) The ceremony was a celebration of their work but in a very old-school, un-scientist-like glamour.
The dress code was, of course, black tie. (“Did you get your dress yet?” Milner joked to me on the phone before the event. My nail polish was Chanel; my dress definitely was not.) The famed restaurant French Laundry catered dinner. An army of young publicists teetered back and forth, talking into their earpieces. “Sarah Zhang with WIRED is in,” announced one ear-pieced young woman when our car first pulled up.
More of these ear-pieced publicists maneuvered scientists down the red carpet, depositing them in front of cameras and reporters. Conversation veered between hard science (peeing in space!) and meta reflections on the event. “Probably the most stressful thing was getting the dress,” geneticist Helen Hobbs told me before the ceremony. Hobbs won for her role in the discovery of a gene that led to new cholesterol drugs.
“It’s surreal!” said John Hardy, who won for his research into Alzheimer’s. Surreal for me too, as a science reporter whose closest previous encounter with a red carpet had to do with fungus. My role was clearly to act as excited to see the scientists as the photographers were to see Christina Aguilera sauntering down the red carpet. While we waited behind the velvet rope cordoning press from “talent,” I confided the oddness of the experience of one veteran freelance entertainment reporter. “Oh I don’t like the red carpet,” she said. “But they pay a lot of money for me to cover it.”
What’s funny about science reporting, as distinct from perhaps any other beat, is that researchers are often surprisingly accessible: You can find their emails, often even cell phone numbers, in a university directory. Try that with Tom Cruise, Veteran Freelance Entertainment Reporter! Yet on the Breakthrough red carpet, reporters stood in the press corral, barred from the cocktail party where scientists mingled with tech execs and Christina Aguilera.
For tech billionaires looking to unload a few million, I can certainly think of worse ways than glamming up science. Buying a newspaper, maybe. And when most Americans are struggling to even name living scientists, that’s maybe even a necessary corrective. But I would hate for scientists to become the untouchable god-like celebrities of Hollywood. Jennifer Doudna, who won a Breakthrough Prize last year for her role in the hyped much- gene-editing tool CRISPR, told me since her win, she’s been getting tons of emails from high school students interested in science. It’s great that kids can just email her—and pretty much any scientist—directly,and I hope that a few expensive trophies and French Laundry meals never changes that.