Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting nature.com. You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Mega science prize split between 1,377 physicists

A Correction to this article was published on 17 November 2015

This article has been updated

Multimillion-dollar Breakthrough awards announce winners in physics, life sciences and mathematics.

Seven neutrino physicists who led the five teams sharing the Breakthrough Prize pose onstage during the ceremony in Mountain View, California. Credit: Steve Jennings/Getty Images for Breakthrough Prize

It is a celebration of the collective over the individual. Whereas only two physicists picked up this year’s physics Nobel prize for the discovery that neutrinos have mass and can change identity while travelling, 1,377 collaborators who were involved in the ‘neutrino oscillation’ experiments behind the finding will share the US$3-million Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics.

The Age of the Neutrino: A graphical guide

The awards, announced on 8 November at a star-studded ceremony at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, also honour five biologists in the life sciences and a mathematician.

“There is a message here that science is a much more collective effort than it was 100 years ago,” says Russian Internet entrepreneur Yuri Milner, who is one of the prizes’ founders. “It is international, it is diverse, it involves lots of people.”

Cooperation recognized

The Breakthrough physics prize marks the first time that a significant science prize has been awarded to such a large group of people — which Milner describes as “a logistical nightmare”. It recognizes the members of five international experiments that established that neutrinos have mass, contradicting the standard model of particle physics. In October, the Nobel prize was shared between just two people for the same discovery: Arthur McDonald at Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada, and Takaaki Kajita at the University of Tokyo. (Both are among the Breakthrough prizewinners.)

Physics paper sets record with more than 5,000 authors

“This is recognition for excellent science that could only be achieved by cooperation between many scientists,” says McDonald, who led an experiment at the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory in Canada.

Each of the five teams will receive $600,000; team leaders are allotted two-thirds of the money, with the remaining one-third split among other team members.

Because it follows hot on the heels of the Nobels, the Breakthrough prize could be seen as a direct criticism of its older rival, which notoriously refuses to honour more than three individuals, in science categories. But Edward Witten, a physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, who chaired the Breakthrough selection committee, notes that the winners were chosen over the summer, before the Nobels were revealed, so the overlap is coincidental. Nonetheless, Witten says, the decision makes a deliberate statement: “We … consider it important to include at least at a symbolic level the many scientists who contributed.”

Morphing neutrinos win physics Nobel

Göran Hansson, former secretary of the Nobel Committee for Physiology or Medicine, stands by the Nobels’ policy, however. “Precisely because there is so much emphasis on huge organizations, we feel it is important to identify the individuals who pioneered the discoveries,” he says. The Breakthrough prizes are no threat to the prestige of the Nobel, Hansson adds: “We have more than a century of legacy, and people will continue to look to the Nobels to identify excellence in science.”

Biology and maths prizewinners

Five biologists were also awarded Breakthrough prizes: neuroscientists Karl Deisseroth at Stanford University in California and Ed Boyden at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts, received separate awards for developing optogenetics — the programming of neurons so that their electrical activity can be controlled by light. Helen Hobbs at the University of Southern Texas Medical Center in Dallas was recognized for her discovery of human genetic variants that alter cholesterol levels. John Hardy at University College London was honoured for finding the mutations in the gene encoding amyloid precursor protein that cause early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, and Svante Pääbo at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, was recognized for sequencing ancient genomes.

Mathematician Ian Agol at the University of California, Berkeley, received an award for proving three conjectures relating to how three-dimensional ‘manifolds’ (higher-dimensional equivalents of two-dimensional surfaces) can be flattened and transformed. The work could one day have applications for understanding how space-time curves, says Agol, who has previously received the Clay prize and other established maths prizes.

Science prizes: The new Nobels

Compared to those awards, says Agol, the Breakthrough Prize is too new to have established a clear status, and doesn't yet have the same level of fame among mathematicians. “In any case, it is a great honour to be receiving this,” he adds — although admits he doesn't relish appearing on television.

Credit: Kamioka Observatory/ICRR/The University of Tokyo

The award ceremony, hosted by Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, was broadcast live for the first time on the National Geographic Channel, and an edited version will be aired on FOX. It also honoured eight early-career scientists, who received $100,000 each, and the winner of a prize for schoolchildren.

Change history

  • 10 November 2015

    This story's first version and headline incorrectly stated that 1,370 physicists had won the Breakthrough prize; the correct number is 1,377.

Authors

Additional information

Tweet Follow @NatureNews

Related links

Related links

Related links in Nature Research

Morphing neutrinos win physics Nobel 2015-Oct-06

Astronomers win big in science mega-awards 2014-Nov-10

Science prizes: The new Nobels 2013-Jun-12

Neuroscience: Method man 2013-May-29

Genetics: A gene of rare effect 2013-Apr-09

2015 Nobel Prize in Physics Special

Related external links

Breakthrough Prizes

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Merali, Z. Mega science prize split between 1,377 physicists. Nature 527, 145 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature.2015.18746

Download citation

Further reading

Comments

By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.

Search

Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing