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How The Scientist Took Over Hollywood

Even if it was only for one night the Scientist took over the red carpet for this year Breakthrough Awards.


Actress Glenn Close thinks scientists should be more famous. “Oh please,” she said on the red carpet of the Breakthrough Prize gala last weekend. Their status “should be way above celebrity.”


For more than 10 years, making science glamorous has been the goal of Breakthrough Prize, which doles out $3 million awards in fields like mathematics and fundamental physics in the style of a classic Hollywood awards ceremony.


While Close is still more famous than, say, CRISPR scientist Jennifer Doudna, the events have handed out significant cash, raised the profile of some researchers and have lately gained cachet in Hollywood. News outlets noted attendees’ outfits Saturday, and posts from celebrities at the gala made the rounds on social media this week. An Instagram post by Close, for example, showed her seated between Doudna and the artist Jeff Koons, garnering 3,000 likes. Meanwhile, Elon Musk’s tuxedo was dissected in detail on his social network X.


Held at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, the event is a rare coming together of tech nerds and the Hollywood elite. Bemused honorees left their labs to mingle with the likes of Lizzo, Venus Williams and Vin Diesel. Fredrick van Goor, who shared a prize for life sciences for work on cystic fibrosis, said the notion of a red carpet “never entered our minds,” but if it helps inspire others to take on what he said was “a cool job,” he’s all for it.



The prizes were founded by investor Yuri Milner, his wife Julia, Google co-founder Sergey Brin and 23andMe boss Anne Wojcicki, along with Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg. In the beginning, hardly anyone paid attention. Now, the event’s profile has been elevated by escalating production values and — crucially — a move to Los Angeles.


Wojiciki believes the prize’s science-boosting effort is working. “Over time with repetition, it sinks in,” she said. Attendee Vlad Tenev, the chief executive officer of Robinhood Markets Inc., noted that viewership for the Oscars has declined over the years, but viewership for the Breakthrough Prize has risen. “I look forward to when that crossover happens,” he said.


The driving force behind the awards is Milner, a physicist by training, who runs the investment group DST Global. Milner said that while the impact is hard to measure, there are invisible effects that are “profound and precious.” For example, he said Huda Zoghbi, a geneticist who won a Breakthrough Prize in 2017, got a letter from a Lebanese woman who said she had watched the ceremony online that year with her young daughter. The woman’s daughter decided to become a scientist.


About one-third of guests were neither celebrity nor scientist, adding to the unusual milieu. Joe Gebbia, co-founder of Airbnb Inc., said he was impressed the previous year when he was seated at a table with the family of late physicist Stephen Hawking, plus Eddie Redmayne, who played Hawking in The Theory of Everything. Financier Michael Milken said he found the other guests interesting, but it was hard to feel starstruck. “I financed most of these companies,” he said about the studios the actors worked for.


On stage, Margot Robbie and Bradley Cooper handed the prize in fundamental physics to quantum clockmakers Hidetoshi Katori and Jun Ye. Patients whose lives had been saved by medical progress spoke about their treatment. And Alicia Keys and Kim Kardashian hugged each other for warmth in the unusually chilly Los Angeles night, before presenting another prize in life sciences to Demis Hassabis and John Jumper for their work in artificial intelligence and protein folding at Alphabet Inc.’s DeepMind.




Elon Musk sat at a table next to Dame Emma Walmsley, CEO of GSK Plc, along with Brie Larson, and former Google CEO Eric Schmidt. Also at the table was James Corden of Carpool Karaoke fame, who was the night’s emcee. Before the event, Musk joked with reporters about who should play him in an upcoming biopic — Bradley Cooper or Benedict Cumberbatch — and dodged questions about his business endeavors. He also took a serious turn.


“I’m glad Yuri Milner is doing the Breakthrough Prize, because technology is what moves civilization forward, and saves lives, and makes life interesting,” Musk said. “Hopefully it doesn’t kill us all.”


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