Tech heavy hitters, celebrities bet science can fend off Trump

Mark Zuckerberg joins other big names in Silicon Valley and Hollywood to hand out $25 million for advances in tech and science at the Breakthrough Prize ceremony.

Claudia Cruz Reporter / CNET en Español
Claudia Cruz is a reporter for CNET en Español. Previously she served as the local editor and social media manager for Mountain View and Palo Alto, Patch.com. Prior to that, editor at El Correo de Queens and contributed as a staff reporter to The Queens Courier in New York City. She has a Masters degree from the City University of New York's (CUNY) Graduate School of Journalism in business and entrepreneurial journalism, and a Juris Doctor from The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law. Claudia's a native New Yorker, daughter of Dominican parents. She loves baseball, yoga and tasting the abundant microbrews in California.
Claudia Cruz
3 min read

Actor Vin Diesel and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg hand out an award at the Breakthrough Prize ceremony Sunday.

Courtesy of Mark Zuckerberg

At an exclusive awards ceremony Sunday in Silicon Valley, scientists, tech executives, movie stars and athletes said they hope science will help bring facts back to many dinner table conversations.

The Breakthrough Prize, now in its fifth year, recognized the achievements of 21 scientists from all over the world in the fields of fundamental physics, life sciences and mathematics. The awards were established by Google co-founder Sergey Brin; 23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki; Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan; and venture capitalist Yuri Milner.

A total of $25 million was awarded and a few of the honorees took home $3 million each -- more than triple the amount of a Nobel Prize. The ceremony was held at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.

At the event, there was a confidence in the air that the Breakthrough Prize held more significance now, after the election of Donald Trump as US president. Attendees said they believe the promotion of scientific research will help dispel claims that science is wrong on things like climate change.

"We are very lucky to have people at the caliber of Mark and Priscilla, Yuri and Julia [Milner], and Anne and Sergey that support this wonderful venture," said Cumrun Vafa, a professor of physics at Harvard University. He won an award for his work in quantum field theory, string theory and quantum gravity. "They are supporting science to give that message to young people that science is something to be taken seriously. And this is particularly important at this time where the value of science is sometimes challenged."

Not mincing any words, California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom said "these awards are important now more than ever" since the president-elect "doesn't believe in science."

"The Fast and the Furious" producer and actor Vin Diesel weighed in on how he believes the scientific community will be alright in the long run.

"No, I'm not that concerned," he said. "I feel that as a people -- and not as a nation, but as a world -- we will protect our world and we'll pay the necessary attention to the progression of science."

Hollywood producer and film executive Harvey Weinstein said he could talk for hours about the president-elect's views on science. But he decided to be more succinct as he chimed in about Trump from the red carpet.

"Let's see what happens. I'm going to keep an open mind," Weinstein said. When asked if he had a message for Trump, he replied: "Come to the science awards."

Among the other tech, music, movie and sports stars in attendance were: Google CEO Sundar Pichai, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, Oculus VR CEO Brendan Iribe, Box CEO Aaron Levie, venture capitalist Bill Maris, astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly, Morgan Freeman, Alicia Keys, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Vin Diesel, Kevin Durant, Dev Patel, Alex Rodriguez and Will.i.am.


23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki with boyfriend and former Yankee Alex Rodriguez and her sister, YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki, on the red carpet Sunday.

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2017 Breakthrough Prize Winners:

Life Sciences ($3 million award each)

  • Stephen J. Elledge
  • Harry F. Noller
  • Roeland Nusse
  • Yoshinori Ohsumi
  • Huda Yahya Zoghbi

Fundamental Physics ($3 million award split)

  • Joseph Polchinski
  • Andrew Strominger
  • Cumrun Vafa

Mathematics ($3 million award)

Jean Bourgain

New Horizons in Physics Prize ($100,000 award each)

  • Asimina Arvanitaki
  • Peter W. Graham
  • Surjeet Rajendran
  • Simone Giombi
  • Xi Yin
  • Frans Pretorius

New Horizons in Mathematics Prize ($100,000 award each)

  • Mohammed Abouzaid
  • Hugo Duminil-Copin
  • Benjamin Elias
  • Geordie Williamson

International Breakthrough Junior Challenge Prize ($400,000 total: $250,000 scholarship, $50,000 for their teacher, and $100,000 for their school.)

  • Antonella Masini, 18 (Peru)
  • Deanna See, 17 (Singapore)

2016 Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics (awarded in May, the founders share $1 million and the team members share $2 million)

Founders Kip Thorne, Rainer Weiss, Ronald Drever and team members of LIGO