If 2015 is indeed the Year of the Nerd (and there are many who say so), there may be no bigger proof than this year’s Breakthrough Prizes.
Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, along with his wife and a cohort of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, created the awards to honor top biologists, physicists, mathematicians, and other scientists with an evening of glitz and glamour — not to mention, millions in prize money.
“We had been warned that this thing would be produced like the Oscars,” said John Hardy, a geneticist from University College in London whose discovery of gene markers for Alzheimer’s disease earned him a Breakthrough Prize of $3 million.
“I had a recurring nightmare that the whole thing would turn out to be a colossal joke,” Hardy said.
But it was for real.
The Sunday night gala featured a red carpet, a luxe dinner catered by the famed French Laundry restaurant, and black ties and glittering gowns galore. Singer Pharrell Williams provided entertainment. Hollywood celebs such as Christina Aguilera, Cameron Diaz, and Hilary Swank were also on hand at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. for the second annual Breakthrough ceremony.
“I liked the celebrities,” said Hardy. “The ones I spoke to were quite grand. I talked to Christina Aguilera.” Hardy even sat next to Lana del Rey, the singer, songwriter, and model.
“My kids know her better than me,” Hardy said. “But I’ve heard of her.”
MIT neuroscientist Ed Boyden won a $3 million prize for developing optogenetics, a technique that lets researchers activate specific neurons in the brain with flashes of light. He’s used to controlling the most minute aspects of his research. Yet when it came to the awards ceremony, he was the one being directed.
“We did the red carpet,” said Boyden. “And they had people telling us where to stand. And when to wave.”
Boyden called the ceremony “a little nerve wracking and a little surreal,” especially with all the celebs in his midst.
“But it was nice to speak to people we don’t normally reach out to,” he said. He even tried to turn them on to neuroscience. Which not all of them seemed to quite grasp. “Some of the actors were asking me about meditation,” Boyden said.
As for the $3 million prizes? Some of it was spent even before the awardees landed in California for the ceremony.
“I bought a tux in Edinburgh two weeks ago,” Hardy said. “It cost more than I’ve spent on clothes in the last ten years.”
After the ceremony ended, the scientists hit their own version of the post-Oscar TV talk shows: They holed up in a conference room Monday for a full day of nerding out at panel discussions.
And they seemed pretty darn happy about it.
“Preparing to be on closing panel of the Breakthrough Prize symposium,” Boyden tweeted Monday evening. “Question: Why is the universe comprehensible?”