Tag Archives: Breakthrough Prizes



The Breakthrough Starshot is a fantastic research project! (http://dr-monsrs.net)
The Breakthrough Starshot is a most fantastic research project! (http://dr-monsrs.net)


One of the 3 largest general problems in modern science is “money” (see:  “Introduction to Money in Modern Scientific Research” ).  Some individual philanthropists with billions of dollars recently are greatly advancing science and benefiting society via substantial donations to start new research institutes, research support programs, science initiatives, and science megaprizes.  By providing the very large funding needed for projects in big science, they enable doing what others only can dream about; some of their new ideas are daring and creative explorations, while others try to leap over the normal slow pace of scientific research.

This article looks at a very new and dramatic space project, the Breakthrough Starshot, just announced as an intensive attempt to develop and test new mechanisms for interstellar travel (see 2 short videos at: http://www.space.com/32546-interstellar-spaceflight-stephen-hawking-project-starshot.html ).  Its ultimate goal is to investigate whether life exists on planets outside our solar system.  This novel exploratory project is part of the Breakthrough Initiatives [1] featuring new ideas for scientific research.

Background on the 3 directors of Breakthrough Starshot! [1-5]

Yuri Milner is a financial investor, internet entrepreneur, physicist, and science philanthropist, who has homes both in Russia and California.  He acquired his very large fortune by working and investing in international internet ventures, and is one of the founders of the Breakthrough Prizes  (see:  “New Multimillion Megaprizes for Science, Part II” ).  His generous sponsorship is the basis for the Breakthrough Starshot project.

Stephen Hawking is a world-renowned theoretical physicist and cosmologist, who is a  Professor and Director of Research at the University of Cambridge in the U.K.  He provides expert insight into the many challenges faced by the Breakthrough Starshot research project.

Mark Zuckerberg is well-known as the founder and CEO of the social media website, Facebook.  He is one of the several major donors supporting the Breakthrough Prizes.

What exactly is the goal of the Breakthrough Starshot research project?  [1-5]

This new research effort was developed by a small working group of individuals experienced with new technology, innovative designs for research, and creative ideas for advancing space science.  Its ultimate purpose is to learn if some sort of life exists on planets circling nearby stars; Hawking and other scientists postulate that many of the hundreds of newly discovered exoplanets must harbor some forms of life.

This project specifically aims to investigate whether new technologies can propel extremely small spacecraft to nearby stars using power transmitted by very high energy laser arrays on Earth.  Initially, he minute light-weight space probes will look at unknown planets circling the star closest to our own Sun, Alpha Centauri.  As part of the engineering and testing, subsidiary probes will be launched to study planets and their moons within our solar system.

How will this challenging project be conducted?  [1-5]

A host of gigantic technological and engineering problems must be solved in order to accomplish the goals of Breakthrough Starshot.  Alpha Centauri is 4.37 light years (i.e., 41 trillion kilometers) away from Earth.  Launching the novel spacecraft is expected to be ready about 30 years from now; during this time, 3 phases of work will be conducted: (1) all aspects of design and engineering, (2) construction and testing of prototypes for the system of laser arrays and the minute spacecraft, and (3) final assembly and launching of fleets of these mass-produced space probes (e.g., hundreds or thousands).  Each spacecraft will be the size of a large postage stamp, weigh about one gram, and carry no fuel or crew.  By traveling at 20% of the speed of light, their journey to Alpha Centauri will take some 20 years!

Electronics and instrumentation in the nanoscale will be used to construct the nanospacecraft.  Each will have a special “space sail” that unfolds in space to collect energy beamed by arrays of very high power lasers on Earth; the transmitted energy pushes their propulsion.  Close-up images and data will be transmitted back to Earth for analysis.  The new research data acquired will exceed what can be gathered by advanced telescopes located on Earth.

Are any big problems foreseen for this new research project?  [1-5]

Yuri Milner is donating $100,000,000 to cover expenses for the first 5-10 years of initial research and development (R&D) work.  By providing this private funding, Milner forcefully gets everything started and immediately neutralizes the usual objections to spending oodles of taxpayers’ money to conduct this science-fiction-type research project!  He foresees that collaborative international sources will provide the many billions of dollars needed for later completion of the project; that gigantic sum equals the multibillion dollars from multiple international sources already used to establish new synchrotron facilities, construct very large new telescopes, and launch a new space telescope (see:  “The New James Webb Space Telescope: Big Science Requires Big Money and Big Time, But Should Produce Big Results!” ).  Global Industry is another possible source of the many billions needed.

Individual scientists already have been proposing and speculating about possible means for interstellar travel.  The many hundreds of research workers (i.e., scientists, engineers, industrial producers, managers, technicians, etc.) needed to conduct the extensive R&D effort for the Starshot project certainly are available.  This enterprise could take place within some organization similar to NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), but kept outside of governmental operations.

Many design features for the Breakthrough Starshot are both novel and untested, but seem to be within the present range of engineering and developing technology.  The high power laser systems do not yet exist, but military development of laser weapons already is progressing.  The ultraminiature spacecraft also do not yet exist, but science and engineering now are expanding development of nano-cameras, nano-computers, nano-electronics, etc., so their innovative design should be doable.  Milner, Hawking, and other scientists see this amazing conceptual framework as being realistically possible.

Concluding remarks! 

To be sure, as with all truly innovative ideas, many problems will arise.  At present, none of those seem to be insurmountable.  The possibility of reaching the project goal is truly exciting, and the results will be utterly meaningful for our own planet.



[1]  Breakthrough Initiatives, 2016a.  About Breakthrough Initiatives.  Available on the internet at:  http://breakthroughinitiatives.org/About .

[2]  Breakthrough Initiatives, 2016b.  Internet investor and science philanthropist Yuri Milner physicist Stephen Hawking announce Breakthrough Starshot project to develop 100 million mile per hour mission to the stars within a generation.  Available on the internet at:  http://breakthroughinitiatives.org/News/4 .

[3]  Merali, Z., 2016.  Q&A: Web billionaire describes his plan to shoot for the stars.  Science .  Available on the internet at:  http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/05/qa-web-billionaire-describes-his-plan-shoot-stars .

[4]  Overbye, D., 2016.  Reaching for the stars, across 4.37 light-years.  The New York Times, April 13, 2016, page A12.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/13/science/alpha-centauri-breakthrough-starshot-yuri-milner-stephen-hawking.html?_r=1 .

[5]  Choi, C.Q., 2016.  Three questions about Breakthrough Starshot.  The enormously ambitious mission faces a few challenges.  Popular Science, April 27, 2016.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.popsci.com/three-questions-for-breakthrough-starshot .





Please Tell Me, Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who is the Very Best Scientist of Them All ??   (http://dr-monsrs.net)

Please Tell Me, Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who is the Very Best Scientist of Them All ?? (http://dr-monsrs.net)


There are a very large number of awards and honors given to research scientists every year!  Most are much smaller than the 2 highest awards for excellence in science, the Nobel Prize [1] and the Kavli Prize [2].  Many of the other honorific prizes are local or narrowly dedicated to a certain subject, activity, location, or aspect of science.  A few of these others have achieved a wonderful record of significance such that they commonly are labelled as being precursors for receiving a Nobel Prize; the Lasker Awards for clinical and basic research in medicine are a very good example of this [3].  Receipt of any award for excellence is a gratifying honor for all the hard work and many challenges to being an outstanding research scientist.

Recently, several large new prizes for outstanding scientists have been initiated, featuring gigantic cash awards.  These major new honors generally are attempts to modernize awards for science, to elevate the public’s low esteem for science, and to bypass some of the restrictions for the Nobel and Kavli Prizes.  Part I of this 2-part series reviews the origin and features of these new megaprizes.  Part II then will evaluate their effects upon science and scientists. 

New Award Programs for Outstanding Scientific Research

A very well-written article about the new science megaprizes was written by Zeeya Merali and published last year in Nature [4].  I highly recommend that you read this dramatically informative  report (see: http://nature.com/news/science-prizes-Are-new-nobels-1.13168 ).  Some of the new programs with large awards include the: 

(1)    Breakthrough Fundamental Physics Prize (2012), awarded annually to several honorees, with a prize of 3 million dollars to each person [5-8];

(2)    Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences (2013), issued annually to several awardees, with a prize of 3 million dollars to each one [5-8];

(3)    Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics (2013), awarded annually to several selections with a prize of 3 million dollars to each person [6-8];

(4)    Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science (2013), awarded every 2 years to several honorees, with a prize of up to 1.6 million dollars to each [9]; and,

(5)    Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering (2013), aimed to be a Nobel Prize for engineering research and development, with a prize of 1.5 million dollars [5].

All these ‘new Nobels’ now have been actually awarded to very meritorious researchers [6-9] .  Yet other megaprizes undoubtedly will be added to this enlarging line-up.  In the following lists, numbers do not correspond to the same number in the list above.

What are the purposes of these additional awards?  The new Breakthrough Prizes  were established with funds generously donated by Yuri Milner and several other very successful leaders in  Silicon Valley and the internet world [5].  A variety of reasons have been given for the purposes of these new megaprize programs:

(1)   elevate  and encourage more public interest and appreciation for modern science;

(2)   encourage students to pursue a career in science or engineering;

(3)   attract more research funding for certain less prominent disciplines in science;

(4)   stimulate more development of science and research in certain regions of the world;

(5)   bring Nobel-level attention to other dimensions of research (e.g., engineering);

(6)   bring Nobel-level attention to new and novel areas in modern science;

(7)   give acclaim to outstanding younger researchers before they get old or die;

(8)   increase unrestricted research funds for support of outstanding scientists; and,

(9)   remedy problems and flaws in the Nobel Prize award programs.

What prompted individuals to fund the establishment of these mega-awards?  The story about how and why Yuri Milner, who resides in California and Moscow, established the Breakthrough Prizes is indeed fascinating [5].  Milner said that he “wanted to send a message that fundamental science is important”.  Several other prominent leaders in internet companies joined Milner to expand the Breakthrough Prize programs.  A host of possible motivations immediately are suggested for the extreme generosity of these cosponsors, including:

(1)     promotion of ego (e.g., ambition to become a mover and shaker in science);

(2)     self-interest (e.g., buying fame, power, and recognition);

(3)     politics and business interests;

(4)     acquiring publicity for a favorite cause; and,

(5)    inducing changes in the present direction of science and society.

Why are the new science awards so very large?  The cash rewards for the new science megaprizes all are greater than the one million dollar size of the rewards given by the Nobel or Kavli Prizes.  At the very least, this feature draws much more attention and publicity to the new award programs and new awardees.  Some donors to the Breakthrough Prizes have said that they want outstanding scientists to be recognized as corresponding to the ‘superheroes’ in comic books.  In most cases, the several million dollars in prize money awarded to each individual is unrestricted, and theoretically could be used for buying a new house, starting a small business, taking several round-the-world cruises, making large gifts, supplementing available research grants, investing to earn income, etc., etc.  Almost all modern scientists are not used to having such large amounts of personal money available, and are reported by Merali to be hesitant to decide what they will do with their new pile of big prize money [4] . 

How do the New Megaprizes Differ from The Nobel and Kavli Prizes? 

Several of the new award programs have been claimed in news accounts as being a greater honor than the Nobel or Kavli  Prizes, largely because they feature a bigger cash reward.  However, just because their prize money indeed is larger, it does not follow that the new awards are more prestigious honors.  It must be recognized that the size of awards for the Nobel and Kavli Prizes already are very large.  To receive even more money moves scientists into today’s realm of star athletes, heads of governments, and entertainment figures.  If that acts to normalize who and what modern society values, then the result could be good.  However, it seems more likely that giant awards will also have some very undesirable consequences; these negative effects will be examined later in Part II.   

The several good features of the new megaprize awards modify usual practices for the Nobel Prize by having: open nominations (also used by the Kavli Prize); selection by other scientists or by previous winners; much less secrecy in judging;  an increased number of awardees (e.g., an entire team, rather than just the one director); emphasis on unconventional subjects or special concerns ; and, inclusion of science areas not honored (yet) by the traditional Prizes (e.g., mathematics).  

The new Tang Prize in Biopharmaceutical Science is given to outstanding scientists  in this one sub-branch of biological science  [9].  The other large prizes awarded by the Tang Foundation are for projects within Sustainable Development, but outside of science [9].  Headquartered in Taiwan, this megaprize program is notable because part of its large cash reward is given to the individual person being honored, and part is given specifically to support their further experimental research efforts. 

Conclusions for Part I

The new multimillion megaprizes for outstanding scientific research serve several useful purposes for science and society: the number of scientists being honored each year is increased, realms of science that are not used by traditional major award programs will be inaugurated and encouraged, and, the financial rewards for the honorees will be substantially elevated.  Subsidiary benefits include providing greater publicity and education  of the public for science and research, bringing recognition to entire teams of scientists working together, and, encouraging more good students to enter a career in science. 

Although the intents of these new award programs are very commendable, some of these also seem likely to result unexpectedly in negative outcomes.   The following Part II will discuss the unintended problematic features introduced by the new megaprizes. 

References Cited

[1]  Nobel Prizes, 2014.  Nobel Prize facts.  Available on the internet at:  http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/facts/ .

[2]  The Kavli Prize, 2014.  About the Kavli Prize.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.kavliprize.org/about .

[3]  Lasker Foundation, 2014.  The Lasker Awards overview.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.laskerfoundation.org/awards/ .

[4]  Merali, Z., 2013.  Science prizes: The new Nobels.  Nature  498:152-154.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.nature.com/news/science-prizes-Are-new-nobels-1.13168 .

[5]  Sample, I., for The Guardian, 2012.  Biggest science prize takes web tycoon from social networks to string theory.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.theguardian.com/science/2012/jul/31/prize-science-yuri-milner-awards.

[6]  Breakthrough Prize, 2014.  Recipients of the 2015 Breakthrough Prizes in Fundamental Physics and Life Sciences announced.  Available on the internet at:  https://breakthroughprize.org/?controller=Page&action=news&news_id=21 .  

[7]  Flam, F.D., for Forbes, 2014.  Winners announced for the world’s richest science award: The $3 million Breakthrough Prize.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.forbes.com/sites/fayeflam/2014/11/09/winners-announced-for-the-worlds-richest-science-award-the-3-million-breakthrough-prize/ .

[8]  BBC News, Science and Environment, 2014,  Breakthrough science prize: Big names add glitz to ceremony.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-29987154

[9]  Tang Prize Foundation, 2014.  Introduction, award categories, and 2014 Tang Prize in biopharmaceutical science.  Available on the internet at:  http://www.tang-prize.org/ENG/Publish.aspx .



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