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A screen shot from a live stream of the 2018 Breakthrough Prize Ceremony, held on Sunday, Dec. 3 from the NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. Photo: via Breakthrough Facebook

The Breakthrough Awards honor scientists deeply embedded in their fields, making discoveries that may have enormous impact on human life. The annual ceremony, founded by billionaires including the founders of Facebook and Google, has become glitzy, with celebrities and major musical acts performing on the live broadcast. Morgan Freeman hosted the affair Sunday night, with presentations by actress Kerry Washington and Miss USA Kara McCullough, and a live set by rapper Wiz Khalifa.

The combined $22 million was awarded to scientists who have studied the mechanisms of plant biology, shown how the universe and its innumerable galaxies evolved since the beginning of time, probed the pathway of how inherited ALS develops, how the body protects against misfolded proteins and erroneous chromosome duplication, and pushed mathematics into higher dimensions, among other major avenues of research.

Each of the seven awards was worth $3 million, and an additional $1 million was split between younger scientists just starting their careers.

“By celebrating science and recognizing its importance to our world, the visionary founders of the Breakthrough Prize are having a significant impact on promoting life-changing discovery and encouraging bright young minds to bring their talents to these exciting fields,” said Joanne Chory, one of the winners, in a statement released through the Salk Institute where she conducts her work.

Five Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences were awarded to a diverse group of interests. The first winner was Chory, the Salk investigator who has used molecular genetics to better understand how plants optimize their growth in response to a changing environment. Chory is “one of the great innovators of science in this century,” according to her colleagues.

Other scientists garnering the Life Science award included: Don W. Cleveland, a researcher at the University of California – San Diego, who has established some of the ways molecules go rogue to cause one type of ALS; Kazutoshi Mori of Kyoto University, who outlined the way that healthy bodies regulate unfolded proteins; and Peter Walter of the University of California – San Francisco, who also focused on misfolded proteins and their resulting pathology; and Kim Nasmyth of Oxford, who scrutinized the biological mechanisms by which duplicated chromosomes are naturally policed to avoid genetic diseases like cancer. Each of these winners received a whopping $3 million sum with their prize.

The Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics was split between the 27 members of the WMAP (Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe) science team, who have taken measure of nothing less than the dimensions of the universe. The NASA probe was launched in 2001, and has since driven humanity’s fundamental understanding of the beginnings of the universe and how it has evolved over time, according to the team. (The team has previously earned other awards over the course of the project, including the 2012 Gruber Cosmology Prize).

The Breakthrough Mathematics Prize (a $3 million award) will be divided equally between two mathematicians, Christopher Hacon of the University of Utah, and James McKernan of the University of California – San Diego for their contributions to advanced algebra. The two scientists were previously jointly awarded the 2009 Cole Prize and the 2007 Clay Research Award for their contributions to algebra, additionally. Their work pushes algebraic geometry into higher dimensions beyond the three humans can clearly perceive.

"I am extremely honored and humbled by this award," said Hacon, in a school statement. "This work is the culmination of sustained efforts by many brilliant mathematicians. It is very exciting that the field of birational algebraic geometry and the University of Utah are receiving this kind of recognition."

The remaining $1 million is segmented among multiple younger scientists, including a New Horizons in Physics Prize, New Horizons in Mathematics Prize, and the Breakthrough Junior Challenge. The last of the three recognizes an 18-year-old student in the Philippines named Hillary Diane Andales, whose submission video focused on reference frames within the theory of general relativity, will receive $250,000 in educational prizes, including $50,000 for her science teacher, and a whole new science laboratory at her school valued at $100,000.

The Breakthrough Prizes winners are selected by previous laureates.

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