Press Release

Winners of the 2020 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, Fundamental Physics and Mathematics Announced

By SpaceRef Editor
September 5, 2019
Filed under ,

The Breakthrough Prize Foundation and its founding  sponsors – Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, Ma Huateng, Yuri and Julia Milner, and Anne Wojcicki – today announced the recipients of the 2020 Breakthrough Prize and 2020 New Horizons Prize, awarding a collective $21.6 million in recognition of important achievements in the Life Sciences, Fundamental Physics, and Mathematics.


Now in its eighth year, the Breakthrough Prize, known as the “Oscars of Science,” annually recognizes achievements in the Life Sciences, Fundamental Physics and Mathematics, disciplines that ask the biggest questions and seek the deepest explanations. Considered the world’s most generous science prize, each Breakthrough Prize is $3 million.


This year’s winners are credited with discoveries that address important and compelling scientific questions – from “What does a black hole look like?” to “Why do chilis taste hot?” and “What are the causes of neurodegenerative disease?” 


As a collective, this year’s Breakthrough Prize laureates probed the heavens to capture the first image of a black hole; imagined gravity at the quantum level; laid the foundation for non-opioid analgesics to extinguish chronic pain; established the biological basis of how much we eat and weigh; and discovered common mechanisms underlying neurodegenerative disorders, including early-onset dementia. Full citations can be found below.


In addition, six New Horizons Prizes were awarded to twelve scientists recognizing early-career achievements in Fundamental Physics and Mathematics. Full citations can be found below. 


The new laureates will be recognized at the eighth annual Breakthrough Prize gala awards ceremony on Sunday, November 3, at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, and broadcast live on National Geographic. Each year, the program has a theme, and this year’s topic – “Seeing the Invisible” – is inspired by the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration, which created the first image of a black hole, as well as the broader power of science and mathematics to reveal hidden, uncharted worlds.


Also to be celebrated at this year’s ceremony – a Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, which was announced in August, to recognize the discovery of the theory of supergravity by physicists Sergio Ferrara, Daniel Z. Freedman, and Peter van Nieuwenhuizen. They constructed the highly influential 1976 theory that successfully integrated the force of gravity into quantum field theory.


Today also marks the beginning of the Popular Vote period (September 5 – 20) for the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, an online, global competition that is hosted annually by the Breakthrough Prize Foundation to inspire young people to think creatively about science. For the Challenge, now in its fifth year, students ages 13 to 18 from countries across the globe are invited to create and submit original videos (maximum 3:00 minutes in length) that bring to life a concept or theory in life sciences, physics or mathematics. The top scorer in the Popular Vote contest will receive automatic entry to the final round. 


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Prize Citations


2020 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics


The Event Horizon Telescope Collaboration

Collaboration Director Shep Doeleman of the HarvardSmithsonian Center for Astrophysics will accept on behalf the collaboration. The $3 million prize will be shared equally with 347 scientists co-authoring any of the six papers published by the EHT on April 10, 2019, which can be found here:


Citation: For the first image of a supermassive black hole, taken by means of an Earth-sized alliance of telescopes.


Description: Using eight sensitive radio telescopes strategically positioned around the world in Antarctica, Chile, Mexico, Hawaii, Arizona and Spain, a global collaboration of scientists at 60 institutions operating in 20 countries and regions captured an image of a black hole for the first time. By synchronizing each telescope using a network of atomic clocks, the team created a virtual telescope as large as the Earth, with a resolving power never before achieved from the surface of our planet. One of their first targets was the supermassive black hole at the center of the Messier 87 galaxy – its mass equivalent to 6.5 billion suns.  After painstakingly analyzing the data with novel algorithms and techniques, the team produced an image of this galactic monster, silhouetted against hot gas swirling around the black hole, that matched expectations from Einstein’s theory of gravity: a bright ring marking the point where light orbits the black hole, surrounding a dark region where light cannot escape the black hole’s gravitational pull.


2020 Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics


Alex Eskin 

University of Chicago


Citation: For revolutionary discoveries in the dynamics and geometry of moduli spaces of Abelian differentials, including the proof of the “magic wand theorem” with Maryam Mirzakhani.


Description: Eskin teamed with famed Iranian mathematician and Fields Medalist, Maryam Mirzakhni, to prove a theorem about dynamics on moduli spaces. Theirtour de force, published in 2013 after five years of labor, is a result with many consequences.  One addresses the longstanding problem: If a beam of light from a point source bounces around a mirrored room, will it eventually reach the entire room – or will some parts remain forever dark? After translating the problem to a highly abstract multi-dimensional setting, the two mathematicians were able to show that for polygonal rooms with angles which are fractions of whole numbers, only a finite number of points would remain unlit. Mirzakhani passed away in 2017, at age 40, after fighting breast cancer for several years.


2020 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences


Jeffrey M. Friedman

Rockefeller University and Howard Hughes Medical Institute


Citation: For the discovery of a new endocrine system through which adipose tissue signals the brain to regulate food intake.


Description: Since his 1994 discovery of the molecular pathway that regulates body fat, Friedman has been at the forefront of establishing the biological basis of obesity.  His research elucidated the “leptin system” operating below the level of consciousness and “will power” that regulates when, what and how much we eat. Leptin therapy now treats patients with lipodystrophy, a rare but very severe form of diabetes. Leptin also has potential for a treating the subset of obese patients with low leptin levels as well as being used as part of new combinatorial therapies for patients with high leptin levels and who are resistant to leptin. The discovery of leptin has provided a new framework for understanding the pathogenesis of obesity by delineating the physiological and neural mechanisms that regulate food intake and body weight.


F. Ulrich Hartl

Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry


Arthur L. Horwich

Yale School of Medicine and Howard Hughes Medical Institute


Citation: For discovering functions of molecular chaperones in mediating protein folding and preventing protein aggregation.


Description: Collaborating between New Haven and Munich, Hartl and Horwich discovered the supporting machinery that enables proteins to properly fold into the precise shapes necessary to perform their myriad jobs within the cell. As we age, this machinery might slow down and could leave proteins messily clumping – “like the white of an egg congealing in a hot frying pan” – and setting the stage for cancer as well as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Huntington’s and other neurodegenerative diseases. Current research is investigating how to repair or support the cell’s folding machinery to inhibit protein clumping and preserve healthy functioning as we age.


David Julius  

University of California, San Francisco


Citation: For discovering molecules, cells, and mechanisms underlying pain sensation.


Description: Julius discovered cellular signaling mechanisms that produce pain sensation. Among other curiosities, he found that chili peppers and menthol trigger the same sensory receptors in the nervous system that ordinarily respond to heat and cold. While most pain functions as an early warning system, chronic pain is debilitating. But by identifying specific cellular targets for the chronic pain of IBS, arthritis, cancer, etc., his team is laying the foundation for the next generation of non-opioid, precision analgesics. 


Virginia Man-Yee Lee 

University of Pennsylvania


Citation: For discovering TDP43 protein aggregates in frontotemporal dementia and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and revealing that different forms of alpha-synuclein, in different cell types, underlie Parkinson’s disease and Multiple System Atrophy.


Description: Most patients with Alzheimer’s exhibit a web of tangles in their brain cells made up of tau proteins. In 1991, Lee evolved the “tau hypothesis” which posited that the tangles themselves inhibit the proper firing of neurons. She found similar entanglements associated with Parkinson’s and with ALS, and later uncovered how misfolded proteins could spread from cell to cell through the central nervous system. By working to replicate the pathological evolution of tau proteins, Lee invented a protein roadmap to neurodegenerative disorders and an elucidation of common mechanisms of degeneration. Her research has opened up new avenues for identifying targets for drug discovery.


2020 New Horizons in Physics Prize

Xie Chen

California Institute of Technology

Lukasz Fidkowski 

University of Washington

Michael Levin

University of Chicago
Max A. Metlitski

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Citation: For incisive contributions to the understanding of topological states of matter and the relationships between them.


Jo Dunkley 

Princeton University

Samaya Nissanke 

University of Amsterdam

Kendrick Smith 
Perimeter Institute


Citation: For the development of novel techniques to extract fundamental physics from astronomical data.


Simon Caron-Huot 

McGill University

Pedro Vieira 
Perimeter Institute and ICTP-SAIFR


Citation: For profound contributions to the understanding of quantum field theory.


2020 New Horizons in Mathematics Prize


Tim Austin

University of California, Los Angeles


Citation: For multiple contributions to ergodic theory, most notably the solution of the weak Pinsker conjecture.


Emmy Murphy 

Northwestern University 


Citation: For contributions to symplectic and contact geometry, in particular the introduction of notions of loose Legendrian submanifolds and, with Matthew Strom Borman and Yakov Eliashberg, overtwisted contact structures in higher dimensions.


Xinwen Zhu

California Institute of Technology


Citation: For work in arithmetic algebraic geometry including applications to the theory of Shimura varieties and the Riemann-Hilbert problem for p-adic varieties.



About the Breakthrough Prize

In its eighth year, and renowned as the “Oscars of Science,” the Breakthrough Prize will recognize the world’s top scientists. Each prize is $3 million and presented in the fields of Life Sciences (up to four per year), Fundamental Physics (one per year) and Mathematics (one per year). In addition, up to three New Horizons in Physics and up to three New Horizons in Mathematics Prizes are given out to junior researchers each year. Laureates attend a live televised award ceremony designed to celebrate their achievements and inspire the next generation of scientists. As part of the ceremony schedule, they also engage in a program of lectures and discussions.


The Breakthrough Prizes are sponsored by Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, Ma Huateng, Yuri and Julia Milner, and Anne Wojcicki. Selection Committees composed of previous Breakthrough Prize laureates in each field choose the winners. Information on Breakthrough Prize is available at




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