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Scientists awarded $22M in Zuckerberg-backed Breakthrough Prize

The awards were given to researchers from around the world who have solved mysteries such as secret brain circuits and shape-shifting spaces.

Mark Zuckerberg and Yuri Milner cofounded the Breakthrough Prize to raise the profile of scientific discoveries.
Steve Jennings, Getty Images for Breakthrough Prize

Prizes totalling $22 million were presented to scientists in a ceremony in Mountain View, California on Sunday night, as the winners of this year's Breakthrough Prizes were announced.

Sometimes called the "Oscars of science," the Breakthrough Prize was founded by several of tech's most famous billionaires, including Google founder Sergey Brin and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg.

The prizes were awarded to researchers who over the past year have been asking and answering the biggest questions in the fundamental sciences: physics, life sciences and mathematics. Recipients include two researchers from Stanford University and MIT who illuminated the brain's secret circuits and used them to remotely control the motor functions in mice, getting them to run in a circle at the flick of a switch. This year's mathematics prize was awarded to Ian Agol, a University of California at Berkeley researcher who solved the mysteries of shape-shifting spaces.

The Breakthrough Prize was set up by some of Silicon Valley's biggest names in order to raise the profile of cutting-edge science. World-changing scientific discoveries and the people who make them are rarely in the public eye, but the tech leaders who founded the awards are determined to push them into the spotlight. They host a celebrity-studded award ceremony, televised on Discovery, Science and BBC World News channels, intended to glamorize science and the people involved in it with the hope of making it a more attractive career for young people.

"By challenging conventional thinking and expanding knowledge over the long term, scientists can solve the biggest problems of our time," Zuckerberg said in a statement. "The Breakthrough Prize honors achievements in science and math so we can encourage more pioneering research and celebrate scientists as the heroes they truly are."

The $22 million dollars is split several ways: five projects in the life sciences are awarded $3 million each, $3 million is split between five physics projects and $3 million has been awarded to a mathematician. The rest of the prize fund is used to reward young entrants of the Breakthrough Junior Challenge.

Among the recipients of the life science prizes are MIT's Edward S. Boyden and Stanford's Karl Deisseroth, who have both used light to control the brain's activity. They are joined by Helen Hobbs from the University of Texas, whose work is inspiring new preventions of cardiovascular and liver disease; John Hardy from University College London, for discovering the protein mutations that cause early onset Alzheimer's disease; and Svante Pääbo from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, who has pioneered the sequencing of ancient DNA and genomes.

"This year's laureates have all opened up ways of understanding ourselves," said Anne Wojcicki, CEO of personal genomics company 23andMe and a cofounder of the prize. "In the life sciences, they have pushed forward new ideas about Alzheimer's, cholesterol, neurological imaging and the origins of our species. And for that we celebrate them."