2020 Breakthrough Prizes: Who won this year's 'Oscars of science'?

A record-setting black hole picture and advances in how we perceive pain are among the winners of this year's £2.5-million prizes.

By Nadia Drake
Published 6 Sept 2019, 13:18 BST
Lupita Nyong'o and Mark Zuckerberg stand with Xiaowei Zhuang, winner of the 2019 Breakthrough Prize in ...
Lupita Nyong'o and Mark Zuckerberg stand with Xiaowei Zhuang, winner of the 2019 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, during last year's awards ceremony at the NASA Ames Research Centre in November 2018.
Photograph by Steve Jennings, Getty Images for Breakthrough Prize

Humankind’s first image of a monster black hole, the tangled proteins that cause destructive neurodegenerative diseases, and the pathways telling our brains we’re in pain are among the discoveries honored by this year’s Breakthrough Prizes.

With £2.5 million accompanying each major prize, the Breakthrough Prizes are the most lucrative in science. Bankrolled by Silicon Valley titans, including Yuri Milner and Mark Zuckerberg, the prizes honour cutting-edge achievements in life sciences, physics, and mathematics. And unlike some other well-known science prizes, it’s not unusual for the Breakthrough team to honour teams rather than a few select individuals.

For instance, this year’s Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics has been awarded to 347 members of the Event Horizon Telescope team for their work creating an image of the gigantic black hole parked in the center of the galaxy Messier 87. The group is so large that until today, preserving secrecy meant only one member knew about the prize.

“I really can’t wait to tell them—I feel like this has been bottled up,” says project leader Shep Doeleman of the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics.

This year’s other prizes include four in the life sciences, a special prize in fundamental physics for the invention of supergravity, one winner in mathematics, and a handful of £81,000 awards for early career researchers. Recipients will be honoured at an awards gala to be held on November 3 at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, and broadcast live on National Geographic.

Black hole fun

With a mass equal to about 6.5 billion suns, the black hole at the heart of Messier 87 is one of the biggest in our neighbourhood, making it a perfect target for the Event Horizon Telescope.

In April 2017, scientists linked up six observatories around the world to essentially create a telescope the size of Earth. Then they aimed it at M87, hoping to capture an image of the roiling, bottomless mass of curved spacetime from which nothing, not even light, escapes.

"We have seen what we thought was un-seeable. And we took a picture." Shep Doeleman, director of the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration.
Photograph by Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration

Earlier this year, the team unveiled that image: a gaping pit of darkness surrounded by a lopsided, seemingly fiery ring.

“So much about this project has been about accepting risk and keeping on when there were setbacks, convincing telescopes that we wanted to invade them and do something new with them that they were not funded or designed to do,” Doeleman says. The work required efforts from the entire EHT consortium, from senior scientists to early career researchers.

Now, the team is working on constructing a similar image of the supermassive black hole nearest and dearest to Earth—the one called Sagittarius A* that’s churning away at the core of our own galaxy. They are also working on making videos of the two cosmic beasts.

“A lot of our attention is now directed toward making the first video of a black hole in real time, watching it digest, watching it launch these jets, testing Einstein’s theories using matter orbits around a black hole instead of light-bending,” Doeleman says. “It’s an entirely new approach to studying spacetime.”

Red hot chili peppers

Closer to home, physiologist David Julius of the University of California, San Francisco, has been honoured with a Breakthrough Prize for his work studying the ways in which we perceive and communicate pain to our brains.

Throughout our bodies, sensory neurons respond to heat, cold, mechanical sensations, and other stimuli. These nerve cells then send warning signals when we’re in danger of being injured, or they flood our nervous system with pain when damage occurs. During that process, signals trigger specific receptors on neuronal surfaces, which then relay the message. These receptors are crucial for perceiving pain, and figuring out how they work is an essential step in developing therapies for inflammation and chronic pain.

Julius decided to figure out how capsaicin, the molecule responsible for making chili peppers spicy, induces the often painful burning sensation that can accompany a few too many Hatch green chilies. He and his colleagues identified the TRPV1 receptor, and then realised that its primary evolutionary purpose was to sense thermal heat.

“That was kind of surprising—and in retrospect, maybe not so surprising—in terms of a psychophysical response,” Julius says. “We identified the receptor based on its ability to respond to capsaicin, but why do we have it? One of the things it responds to is heat, and it participates in our ability to sense heat.”

In other words, chili peppers trigger already existing receptors to send a burning “don’t eat me” message, which mostly works—unless you’re a heat-seeking human.

More recently, Julius and his colleagues identified similar mechanisms behind the cooling effect of menthol (it triggers the TRPM8 receptor, which normally responds to cold) and the sensation produced by wasabi (its receptor, TRPA1, normally responds to chemical irritants). The team is now working on figuring out how to design drugs that alter receptor activity and dampen problematic pain sensations without removing all of a sensory capability.

That’s where, perhaps paradoxically, tarantulas come in. While working out the intricacies of the capsaicin receptor, Julius wanted to find molecules that tightly bound to it, and then use those compounds as guides to potential therapeutic target sites. After doing a bit of searching, he discovered that one of the components of venom from the Earth Tiger tarantula latched on to the TRPV1 receptors.

“The toxin finds little nooks and crannies and goes in there and keeps the receptor from closing … without that toxin, we would have gotten some information about the receptor structure but we wouldn’t have been able to really see it,” Julius says.

“The toxins we find in the natural world, they’re incredibly useful. These animals have had the advantage of millions of years of evolution to evolve toxins that hit targets very specifically.”

See the full list of 2020 Breakthrough Prize winners

2020 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics

The Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration
Collaboration Director Shep Doeleman of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics will accept on behalf the collaboration. The $3 million (£2.5 million) prize will be shared equally with 347 scientists co-authoring any of the six papers published by the EHT on April 10, 2019.
Citation: For the first image of a supermassive black hole, taken by means of an Earth-sized alliance of telescopes.

2020 Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics

Alex Eskin, University of Chicago
Citation: For revolutionary discoveries in the dynamics and geometry of moduli spaces of Abelian differentials, including the proof of the “magic wand theorem” with Maryam Mirzakhani.

2020 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences

Jeffrey M. Friedman,Rockefeller University and Howard Hughes Medical Institute
Citation: For the discovery of a new endocrine system through which adipose tissue signals the brain to regulate food intake.

F. Ulrich Hartl, Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry and Arthur L. Horwich, Yale School of Medicine and Howard Hughes Medical Institute
Citation: For discovering functions of molecular chaperones in mediating protein folding and preventing protein aggregation.

David Julius, University of California, San Francisco
Citation: For discovering molecules, cells, and mechanisms underlying pain sensation.

Virginia Man-Yee Lee, University of Pennsylvania
Citation: For discovering TDP43 protein aggregates in frontotemporal dementia and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and revealing that different forms of alpha-synuclein, in different cell types, underlie Parkinson’s disease and Multiple System Atrophy.

2020 New Horizons in Physics Prize

Xie Chen, California Institute of Technology, Lukasz Fidkowski, University of Washington, Michael Levin, University of Chicago, and Max A. Metlitski, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Citation: For incisive contributions to the understanding of topological states of matter and the relationships between them.

Jo Dunkley, Princeton University, Samaya Nissanke, University of Amsterdam, and Kendrick Smith, Perimeter Institute
Citation: For the development of novel techniques to extract fundamental physics from astronomical data.

Simon Caron-Huot, McGill University, and Pedro Vieira, Perimeter Institute and ICTP-SAIFR
Citation: For profound contributions to the understanding of quantum field theory.

2020 New Horizons in Mathematics Prize

Tim Austin, University of California, Los Angeles
Citation: For multiple contributions to ergodic theory, most notably the solution of the weak Pinsker conjecture.

Emmy Murphy, Northwestern University
Citation: For contributions to symplectic and contact geometry, in particular the introduction of notions of loose Legendrian submanifolds and, with Matthew Strom Borman and Yakov Eliashberg, overtwisted contact structures in higher dimensions.

Xinwen Zhu, California Institute of Technology
Citation: For work in arithmetic algebraic geometry including applications to the theory of Shimura varieties and the Riemann-Hilbert problem for p-adic varieties.


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