‘Magic wand’ theorem among winners of 2020 Breakthrough Prize awards

6 Sep 2019

Contrary to its name, a magic wand is not involved in the theorem. Image: © fergregory/Stock.adobe.com

This year’s ‘Oscars of science’ have been announced, with a total of $21.6m awarded to those who have made substantial breakthroughs this year.

With high-profile sponsors including Mark Zuckerberg, Priscilla Chan and Sergey Brin, the annual Breakthrough Prize attempts to bring the glitz and glamour of Hollywood to the world of science and academics. Ahead of the award ceremony on 3 November at the NASA Ames Research Center, the judges have announced the winners of this year’s prizes.

Perhaps one of the biggest award winners – in terms of the sheer number of scientists involved – is the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration, which picked up the $3m 2020 Breakthrough Prize in fundamental physics. A total of 347 scientists contributed to the first ever image of a supermassive black hole at the centre of the Messier 87 galaxy with the mass of approximately 6.5bn suns.

Meanwhile, the winner of the Breakthrough Prize in mathematics was revealed as Alex Eskin of the University of Chicago for revolutionary discoveries in the dynamics and geometry of moduli spaces of Abelian differentials, including the proof of the ‘magic wand’ theorem, achieved with the late Iranian Fields medallist Maryam Mirzakhani.

The theorem poses the question of whether a beam of light in a room full of perfect mirrors will eventually see each beam reach the entire room, or would there be parts that forever remain unlit? While highly complex, the pair were able to show that for polygonal rooms with angles that are fractions of whole numbers, only a finite number of points would remain unlit.

The curious case of chili peppers

The Breakthrough Prize in life sciences was awarded to four projects for different discoveries, including work from Jeffrey M Friedman, F Ulrich Hartl and Arthur L Horwich, David Julius and Virginia Man-Yee Lee.

Julius of the University of California, San Francisco, for example, will share the award for the discovery of molecules, cells and mechanisms underlying pain sensation. Among other curiosities, he found that chili peppers and menthol trigger the same sensory receptors in the nervous system that ordinarily respond to heat and cold.

Last month, the judges awarded this year’s special Breakthrough Prize in fundamental physics to a trio of physicists for their efforts in unlocking the power of supergravity.

The full list of award winners can be found here.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic