UC Berkeley professors who won Breakthrough Prize honored at daylong symposium

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Karin Goh/Staff

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Hundreds of students, professors and scientists across a variety of fields gathered at the David Brower Center in Berkeley for a daylong symposium Monday honoring winners of the Breakthrough Prize, including two campus professors.

The symposium featured panel discussions led by professors from the campus and around the country in fundamental physics, life sciences and mathematics. The event complemented the televised award ceremony the previous night on National Geographic.

Known as the “Oscar of science,” the Breakthrough Prize gives national recognition — and $3 million — to each winner. A total of $21 million in prizes were awarded to seven individuals and teams, which this year featured UC Berkeley professors Ian Agol and Kam-Biu Luk. The event, which was hosted by comedian Seth MacFarlane, included performances from Pharrell Williams and the attendance of celebrities.

Agol, who accepted the Breakthrough Prize in mathematics for his work with fractals, described the event as a “billionaire’s dream,” combining Hollywood and Silicon Valley. He said he would likely use a portion of the prize money to support graduate math students in underdeveloped countries.

Luk, the winner of the fundamental physics prize, said that while the ceremony was an entertaining mix of artists and scientists, “the interesting part was to find out what the other prize winners are working on, what interesting questions they are addressing.”

UC Berkeley professor David Eisenbud, who chaired the mathematics panel, said the symposium was held primarily to celebrate the prize recipients rather than a particular scientific discovery.

Many in the speech audience, numbering about 340 people, were professors from various schools, such as Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Students were also in attendance, along with interested individuals and representatives from organizations such as NASA and Popular Science magazine.

“It’s a nice thing to have. It says, ‘Pay attention to science,’ ” said UC Berkeley professor George Lakoff, who also led a discussion for the mathematics panel.

UC Berkeley sophomore Hailey Zhou said she was excited to listen to speakers at the frontier of their fields and connect with science enthusiasts from other universities.

Sunday was the third Breakthrough Prize competition, held annually. It was founded by a group of technology industry moguls, including investor Yuri Milner — who hosted a panel discussion — and Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg. The symposium occurred the next day.

After the symposium, past Breakthrough Prize winners — including UC Berkeley professors Jennifer Doudna and Saul Perlmutter — took part in a talk with Milner at Zellerbach Hall.

UC Berkeley’s Interim Vice Chancellor for Research Christopher McKee, who helped organize this year’s symposium, said he hoped to attract a wide audience of intellectual leaders — as well as faculty and community members — to show a younger audience their excitement for science.

“Science is the miracle machine,” Eisenbud said. “It is the force that produces the biggest investment.”

Contact Haruka Senju at [email protected] .