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The 'Oscars of Science' just happened and you didn't even know

Ranjan Crasta | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 8:23 IST

While Baba Ramdev may have railed against the fact that he didn't receive a Nobel (because he's black!), we can rest easy in the knowledge that deserving scientists did win it.

But the Nobel Prize, while hallowed, is far from the most lucrative award in science.

That status is reserved for the Breakthrough Prize - the so-called 'Oscars of Science' that just awarded $22 million in prize money to a host of deserving scientists.

3 categories, a total prize pool of $22 million dollars and a star-studded awards ceremony - this is the Oscars of science

The need for awards in science

Scientists rarely get the accolades they deserve. They trudge through nameless and faceless even as they drive mankind's progress into the future. Though the occasional scientist breaks through into the mainstream, recognition for them is largely hampered by the ignorance of the wider world.

Exhibit A: what happened to Bill Nye on a TV talk show:

We live in a culture where we increasingly glorify the vacuous while actual genius flies under the radar. If you were asked to name three awards for scientific achievement most wouldn't get past the Nobel biggies of physics, medicine, chemistry and mathematics.

But science deserves recognition.

Kim Kardashian's ass might break the internet, but it's not what's going to cure cancer, take us to Mars, or save the planet from us. Luckily a group of private players see the situation for what it is and have put their money where their mouths are.

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A Breakthrough Solution

In 2012, some of the tech industries biggest players came together to fix the problem.

The group's roster is beyond impressive: Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan; Google's Sergey Brin; Alibaba's Jack Ma and his wife Cathy Zhang; Anne Wojciki of the personal genomics company 23andMe; Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and his wife Julia.

Together, the group instituted the Breakthrough Prize, allotting a whopping $3 million each to the winners for outstanding innovation in their fields. It's a prize that dwarfs the Nobel Prize's comparatively-paltry $900,000 cash award.

The awards are for work in life sciences, fundamental physics and mathematics.

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

Since its inception, the Breakthrough Prize has already awarded over $160 million to laureates. While nominations are online and open to the public, the final selection of winners is done by a committee consisting of former laureates.

Also read: Five tech companies are bigger than Facebook and Google: all are from China

The winners for 2015-16

This year's ceremony took place on November 8. With a star-studded ceremony hosted by Seth McFarlane and including the likes of Pharrell Williams, Hillary Swank and Christina Aguilera - and yet, finally, the real stars were the usually-unsung scientists.

Since the number of prizes per category aren't set, this year's prize pool was set at a whopping $22 million.

In the life sciences category, 5 winners won, for work as diverse as Alzheimer's research, cholesterol, neurological imaging and exploring the link between man and Neanderthals.

While the recognition that comes with the award is probably reward enough, it'll be bittersweet financially for the recipients of the breakthrough prize for fundamental physics. All 1,377 of them.

Yes, this year's Physics award will be shared by five teams from across the globe who've worked to better our understanding of the neutrino.

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While two-thirds of the cash prize will go to the team leaders, the remaining $900,000 will be split between their teams. This works out to an almost-embarrassing $700 a researcher.

In contrast to the glut of recipients for the life sciences and the veritable swarm of researchers for the physics prize, the prize for mathematics has just one recipient.

Ian Agol will be the sole recipient of the math prize, taking home the $3 million for his work on 3D shapes and higher dimensions.

Innovation at every level

The Breakthrough Prize founders also seem keen on encouraging the sciences at every level.

So, in addition to the $21 million spent on the main awards, 8 junior researchers will be awarded a total of $500,000. 6 junior researchers will receive the New Horizons in Physics Prize while 2 will receive the New Horizons in Mathematics Prize.

In a first for the Breakthrough Prize, this year also saw the institution of the Junior Breakthrough Challenge - a science-video competition for high-schoolers.

After a total of over 2,000 applications from 86 countries, the winner was Ryan Chester for this:

Chester took home $250,000 in educational prizes.

Also read: The YouTube story: how this 10-year-old has taken over the world

First published: 10 November 2015, 12:19 IST
Ranjan Crasta @jah_crastafari

The Ranjan (Beardus Horribilis) is a largely land-dwelling herbivorous mammal. Originally from a far more tropical habitat, the Ranjan can now be found wandering the streets of Delhi complaining about the weather, looking for watering holes and foraging for affordable snacks. Mostly human, mostly happy and mostly harmless, the Ranjan is prone to mood swings when deprived of his morning coffee. Having recently migrated to the Catch offices, he now inhabits a shadowy corner and spends his time distracting people and producing video content to distract them further.