Scientists are the real 'rock stars'

Kevin Spacey, Conan O'Brien share stage with great scientific minds at 2014 Breakthrough Awards

We may idolize professional athletes and movie stars, but according to Kevin Spacey, who hosted last night's Breakthrough Awards inside the skeletal behemoth of Hangar One, scientists are "the true rock stars of our times."

And for a moment Thursday night, he was right, as journalists from around the world jockeyed to snap pictures and ask questions of celebrities like Spacey, as well as stars of the science and technology world.

Tech titans, media moguls, celebrities, musicians and a four-star general schmoozed with the press during a red carpet event before the 2014 Breakthrough Awards -- a ceremony organized to honor advancements in science -- held at Moffett Field on Dec. 12, inside the skeletal remains of Hangar One.

A total of $21 million was awarded to scientists who achieved advancements in fundamental physics and life sciences. Each winner took home a $3 million prize and a shiny globe-like trophy.

Funding for the event came from a variety of Silicon Valley's biggest names: Sergey Brin, Anne Wojcicki, Jack Ma, Cathy Zhang, Yuri and Julia Milner, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan.

In addition to recognizing the scientists for their work, and providing them with a lot of money to assist in their continued research, Wojcicki said the event was intended to raise the profile of scientists and the work they do. Wojcicki is CEO of the consumer genomics company 23andMe, and one of the events' main sponsors,

"I think this is genuinely going to transform how we view science," Wojcicki said at a press conference following the event.

Richard Lifton of Yale, who was awarded a Breakthrough Prize for discovering the molecular cause of hypertension, agreed with Wojcicki's assessment.

"I think one of the real strengths of tonight's program is to increase the awareness about what science brings to the public," Lifton said at the press conference. He touted the importance of public funding for science, noting that advancements in the treatment of HIV, cardio-vascular disease and cancer "have all come from the public support of science."

The awards, which had been billed as "The Oscars of Science," had the feel of a swanky Hollywood affair.

In addition to securing Spacey as the host, the event was attended by a number of high profile names from the entertainment world, including a very funny and charming Conan O'Brien, and award-winning actors Glenn Close and Michael C. Hall.

Mountain View tech impresarios, including Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Paige, Khan Academy creator Sal Khan and Wojcicki walked down the red carpet. Even former the CIA director, Gen. David Petraeus, posed for the cameras -- later telling the Mountain View Voice, he loved the idea of bringing the glitz of Hollywood to an evening honoring scientists.

"I think it's terrific. I think it's how you elevate it into public recognition — it's how you get young people to recognize it, by turning it into a celebrity kind of event," Petraeus said. It is important to honor scientists for the work they do, because science is "what has propelled the United States in the past and it's going to continue to propel the United States in the future," he said.

Pop singer Lana Del Rey, who would later perform her hit "Video Games" for the audience, made an appearance on the red carpet. In one of the night's more bizarre moments, she told the Voice that she came to the event because she has "a background in metaphysics."

Many of the scientists who made their way into the event walked past all of the flash bulbs without saying much. But Cornelia Bargmann, a neurobiologist from Rockefeller University and one of the event's laureates, said she was hopeful that the high-profile event might "build a bridge" in the popular mind between the science that underpins consumer technology and the technology itself.

On the red carpet, Spacey was congenial, telling reporters from a variety of news organizations, including CNN and CBS, that he was pleased to host an event that brought prestige to the fields of science, technology, engineering and math. He called Albert Einstein as a "celebrity" and praised the scientists and thinkers who help make the world a better place through their innovations in technology and medicine.

"Fifty years ago, the most famous person in the world was a scientist, named Albert Einstein," Spacey said. "He was a man who created and solved extraordinary things using his mind. And I think more kids should be encouraged to use their mind."

Google co-founder Brin said holding the event at Moffett Field, in the heart of Silicon Valley, was a good way to pay tribute to all of the companies innovating and conducting scientific research in the area.

"Silicon Valley does have this very disruptive culture, going back many decades," he said, adding that his company has "definitely benefited from the culture of entrepreneurs" that permeates Mountain View and the surrounding areas.

"I think scientific work and scientific breakthroughs are extraordinarily valuable to the world," Brin said, explaining why he felt it was important to help sponsor the event. "I think they should be rewarded as such. I hope that it will inspire a generation of scientists."

While reporters and photographers swooned over some, like Brin, Spacey and Close, late night personality O'Brien stole the show — cracking wise for the microphones and smiling broadly for the cameras.

He told one pack of reporters he was glad, as a lifelong nerd, to see that being geeky was so in vogue. "Back when I was in high school it was the jocks (that were cool)," O'Brien joked, adding that the tables have now turned. "I'm on the right side now."

As he approached the end of the red carpet, he asked if one reporter knew anything about Hangar One; the out-of-town journalist offered little in response to his question.

That's when this reporter stepped in to educate him on the history of Hangar One and to ask him his thoughts on dirigibles.

"Dirigible?" he began, pausing for a split second before riffing off the question. "I think that's a fantastic way to travel. We should not have moved past the dirigible in the 1930s. We should return to the dirigible."


Like this comment
Posted by Wondering?
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Dec 13, 2013 at 6:26 pm

So, how were the candidates for these prizes chosen? Did they apply on their own, or did someone in their field submit an application on their behalf?

Also got to wonder about the role of 23andMe in this thing .. given that they just got a real smackdown by the FDA?

> "I think it's terrific. I think it's how you elevate it into
> public recognition — it's how you get young people to recognize it,
> by turning it into a celebrity kind of event," Petraeus said.

Really, Gen. Petraeus .. is that the best you've got? Did attaining celebrity status at the CIA help your career .. even a little bit?

Can only wonder what Isaac Newtown would have to say about awarding celebrity status to young people as an inducement to dedicate their lives to science.

Anything to thrown some of that Silicon Valley money around. Oh, well, it's theirs, so why not?

Like this comment
Posted by Nerds rock
a resident of Green Acres
on Dec 13, 2013 at 10:52 pm

Oh, come on, Wondering. Science attracts people for the love of it. This event isn't an inducement to anything, it's just a nice accolade and a generous financial support to recipients. Congratulations to all of them! Thanks to local tech luminaries who made it possible!

(Hey guys, please consider some random acts of investment in your own home town to maintain our quality of life!!)

Like this comment
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 14, 2013 at 11:37 am

A distinction ought to be made between science and technology. Science is great, and we ought to be immersing our society in science to teach everyone how things work and how to think, instead of just brainwashing them with what to buy to be cool. The US is approaching if not arrived at the least informed and educated developed country in the world. Partially we have religion to blame for that. The only kind of strength we get from that is the power of a brainwashable mob, not a thoughtful democratic citizenry.

In our capitalistic society there is a lot of science done, and technologies developed that do not have a really immediate use, but we jump on them anyway, like some of the genetic engineering applications, without thinking of should we do this. We have put so much of our technological power towards what is basically ending up killing nature and our environment, and removing people from nature as well.

Like this comment
Posted by armee
a resident of South of Midtown
on Dec 14, 2013 at 2:05 pm

anyone see the sky get lighter last night? after midnite!

Like this comment
Posted by Revenge of the Nerds
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Dec 16, 2013 at 1:53 pm

People worship stars who rarely have any values or actions worth admiring. Just because someone makes a lot of money as a celluloid hero and has a lot of valuable possessions does not make them worthy of admiration.

Silicon Valley, however, is the ultimate revenge of the nerds. Nerds can now thumb their noses at the bullies who tortured them who are now in nowhere jobs, haha!

Like this comment
Posted by CrescentParkAnon.
a resident of Crescent Park
on Dec 16, 2013 at 5:52 pm

> Nerds can now thumb their noses at the bullies who tortured them who are now in nowhere jobs, haha!

Silly comment ... you don't know much about Silicon Valley or nerds I think, the so-called "nerds" are not thumbing their noses at the bullies who tortured them, they are the new bullies.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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