Mark Zuckerberg Interview: Breakthrough Prizes and Turning Scientists Into Heroes Again

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla attend the 2014 Breakthrough Prize Awards at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, on Nov. 9 Photograph by Peter Barreras/Invision/AP Photo

On Sunday night, Silicon Valley’s elite ventured deep into their walk-in closets, past the rows of uniformly colored T-shirts, to retrieve their formal wear. It was time again for the Breakthrough Prizes to honor pioneers in math and science, held at a refurbished hangar at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.

Seth MacFarlane hosted the festivities. Presenting awards and rubbing shoulders with the geeks were actors such as Cameron Diaz, Jon Hamm, Kate Beckinsale, Eddie Redmayne, who plays physicist Stephen Hawking in the recent film The Theory of Everything, and Benedict Cumberbatch, who stars as Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, which opens in the U.S. on Nov. 28.

The awards were founded in early 2013 by a group led by Russian technology investor Yuri Milner. The aim, the founders say, was to highlight pioneers in the field of science and technology, who typically labor in obscurity. “For better or worse, our world is driven by celebrities in sports and entertainment,” Milner said in an interview. “But celebrities in science are probably not in the top 200 or 300, and that’s completely out of balance to the kind of relative contributions these people make.”

From left: Simon Donaldson (Stony Brook University and Imperial College London), Maxim Kontsevich (Institut des Hautes Études Scientifiques), Benedict Cumberbatch, Terence Tao (University of California, Los Angeles), Mark Zuckerberg, Richard Taylor (Institute for Advanced Study), and Jacob Lurie (Harvard University)
Courtesy Vanity Fair via Facebook

Prizes of $3 million each were awarded for advances in areas such as the development of deep brain stimulation, the discovery that the expansion of the universe is accelerating, rather than slowing, and for work in the even more esoteric planes of higher math. By comparison, the Nobel Prize comes with $1.2 million.

My colleague Ashlee Vance reviewed the event last year, highlighting the “challenge of turning scientists into icons” in a world where we fall over ourselves lionizing young entrepreneurs who “hawk apps designed to facilitate casual hookups.”

At least one Breakthrough Awards sponsor was unfazed by the overall air of skepticism toward last year’s proceedings. Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg helped Milner conceive the prizes and sponsors them along with Milner, Alibaba’s Jack Ma, Google’s Sergey Brin, 23andMe’s Anne Wojcicki, and others. Zuckerberg spoke with Bloomberg Businessweek before the ceremony about why he and wife, Priscilla Chan, back the awards.

“If you look at the history of our country over the last 100 years, there have been periods where science and research have been celebrated,” Zuckerberg said, citing the likes of Albert Einstein. “They were really kind of held up as heroes in society, which encouraged a generation of people to go into these fields. This is also the kind of fundamental stuff that downstream, decades later or even longer, becomes the basis of technology innovation.”

In the 1800s, Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell formulated the theory of electromagnetic radiation and demonstrated how electric and magnetic waves travel through space. As a result, “150 years later we have the modern cell phone and communication industry,” Zuckerberg said.

This year’s event added math as a category of prizes alongside physics and life sciences. It may be difficult for regular folks to even come close to understanding some of the winning work, such as the award given to Stony Brook University’s Sir Simon Donaldson for “the study of the relation between stability in algebraic geometry and in global differential geometry, both for bundles and for Fano varieties,” as the citation goes.

Zuckerberg acknowledges even his understanding of this work is more than a little wobbly, and notes that he plays no role in awarding the prizes. “But I think it’s a lot like relativity,” he said. “One day people will understand that it’s an important contribution, though they may not get that deep into the details.”

One thread of criticism in the coverage of the prizes is that the money “could be better and more wisely spent” elsewhere, as one scientist told Bloomberg Businessweek last year. Zuckerberg compared that argument to the blowback he’s getting for personally funding efforts to combat the Ebola virus, as opposed to more widespread pathogens. “The reason we are focused on Ebola is that it’s growing at a much faster rate. [Other diseases] you can point to where more people are dying aren’t doubling month after month. I believe we have to nip Ebola in the bud before it spreads through Africa and to other countries.”

Zuckerberg continued: “If I could snap my fingers and do one thing in science, I would get more funding for basic science. But the level of funding that needs to be done is not on the order of millions, like the cost of the Breakthrough Prizes. It’s billions to tens of billions. It’s really the type of thing that only governments can fund. I feel like the thing we can do is celebrate people doing great work and create more cultural momentum and awareness that this is an important thing in the world. So when the next economic crisis hits and people are talking about where to cut from the budget, science isn’t the thing.”

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