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Hollywood seeks to make scientists heroes with the Breakthrough Awards

In a society that praises actors and athletes seemingly above all else, what if there were a way to honor those individuals truly making advances in science and math in a glamorous, inspiring way that puts the spotlight on their achievements while furthering their study and encouraging others to do to the same?

Academy Award Winner hosts the Breakthrough Prize Awards.
The Breakthrough Foundation.

This is exactly what’s happening now, thanks to the formation of the Breakthrough Prize, which rewards and recognizes some of the greatest minds in the scientific community.

Beginning in 2013, the Prize has been awarded annually, with a sum of $3 million given to each recipient. Currently, there are six life sciences categories and one psychics’ category for a total of seven prizes and $21 million in prize money. A prize for math will be added in 2015.

Founded by Sergey Brin (Google), and Anne Wojcicki, Jack Ma (Alibaba) and Cathy Zhang, Yuri (DST Global) and Julia Milner, and Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) and Priscilla Chan, is aimed at recognizing excellence in research aimed at extending human life.

“All of this began with this core group of individuals who have excelled in the tech area looking at the things that laid the foundation that made their tech work possible, and that’s science, physics and math,” explains Karl Johansson, Executive Director of the Breakthrough Prize Foundation.

“Think about it this way, if you go back to Einstein and other scientists of that time period, they were considered heroes. Now, we live in an era where the focus of our praise is quite different. We’d like to shift that focus back to the way it was, back to the way it should be.”

To facilitate this shift, the founders decided to concentrate on the best way to make science more attractive to the masses.

“We looked at some of the things that are successful in the entertainment industry and in other sectors and worked to bring those together,” says Johansson. “Using all of that, we created a platform to present these awards at an annual event that’s both glamorous and educational, and we want everyone to have access to all of it.”

This event is the Breakthrough Prize Awards Ceremony, which can best be described as the “Oscars of Science.”

The 2013 ceremony was held at the NASA Ames Research Center in Northern California complete with a red carpet to celebrate both the scientists and all of those people who support their work.

Academy Award Winning Actor Kevin Spacey hosted the event and was joined by Conan O'Brien, Glenn Close, Rob Lowe and Michael C. Hall. The event was produced and directed by Don Mischer, the producer and director of the Academy Awards, among other television and live events, and aired, appropriately, on the Science Channel.

The ceremony is the glamour part of the event while the very next day the Prize winners participate in a symposium presenting their work. The symposium is open to the public.

This symposium fosters one of the main missions of the Prize in that all of this is not only to further the work of established scientists but with the ultimate hope to generate excitement in the next generation to pursue science as a career.

Each prize awarded comes with no restrictions with the only request from the founders that they winners continue to give public lectures and help decide future winners.

Several of the recipients have found additional ways to further that mission, by taking it upon themselves to establish their own scholarship programs using the prize money they received to reward young researchers. By redistributing the prize money, they’ve kept the momentum going.

With this concentration on furthering the recognition of the scientific community within the general population, it’s important to note the nomination process is open to the public and not conducted within a closed committee format.

Nominations are currently being accepted with the prized being awarded in late 2014 at a ceremony that will be televised.

“Our number one hope in doing all of this is to change the way all of society looks at the value of math and science,” says Johansson. “But, we’re well aware that this is not something that will happen easily. It’s an enormous challenge. Right now, everyone seems to place a great deal of importance on things that are ultimately very short term gains in the grand scheme of things. What we’re doing here is addressing long-term issues by building a network and getting scientists from around the world to support it.”

And, if all of this seems out of the realm of understanding for those not versed in the complicated language of these disciplines, rest assured, the powers behind the Breakthrough Prize have worked hard, and successfully so, to make the seemingly these complicated concepts understandable for all, both during the prize ceremony and within the lectures. This effort is all designed specifically to continue to attract people, particularly young adults, to actively become involved in these disciplines.

Johansson adds, “You never know what will spark someone to take action and begin to explore these areas of study. We hope that maybe this will not only be that spark, but will ultimately ignite a burning passion that will lead to some remarkable discoveries.”

For more information on the Breakthrough Prize, including videos of lectures presented by the prizewinners, please visit their website here.