$3 million for your thoughts

$3 million for your thoughts

Caltech faculty members win Breakthrough Prizes in fundamental physics, life sciences

By André Coleman 12/17/2013

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Two Caltech faculty members brought home lucrative prizes last week with John H. Schwarz winning the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics and Alexander Varshavsky taking the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.   

The honors, which each include a $3 million award to be used for further research, add to Caltech’s incredibly rich legacy of awards which includes 33 Nobel Prizes, seven Kavli Prizes, six Crafoord Prizes and dozens of National Medals of Science and Technology. 
Schwarz, the Harold Brown Professor of Theoretical Physics at Caltech, shared his award with Michael B. Green of the University of Cambridge for a collaborative project which created new perspectives on quantum gravity and the unification of the fundamental physical forces of the universe. The duo was awarded the Physics Frontiers Prize earlier this year, which admitted them to candidacy for the Fundamental Physics Prize.

Schwarz and Green are considered pioneers in superstring theory, which they created during an earlier collaboration from 1979 to 1986. Superstring is a version of string theory that relies on the property of supersymmetry to relate the two fundamental types of particles in quantum theory — bosons and fermions — to one another and establish patterns for all creation. 

Varshavsky, Caltech’s Howard and Gwen Laurie Smits Professor of Cell Biology, was honored for “his discovery of the critical molecular determinants and biological functions of intracellular protein degradation,” according to the award citation.

“Studies by my laboratory, at first at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and later at Caltech, focused on the understanding of how and why cells destroy their own proteins to withstand stress, to grow and divide, to differentiate into new kinds of cells, and to do countless other things that make living organisms so astonishing and fascinating,” Varshavsky says.

The awards, announced at a ceremony at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley on Dec. 12, are among the largest academic prizes in the world. The Fundamental Physics Prize is awarded by the Fundamental Physics Prize Foundation, which was established in July 2012 by Russian physicist and Internet entrepreneur Yuri Milner to recognize groundbreaking work in the field. 

Meanwhile, the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences is funded by a conglomeration of Google founder Sergey Brin, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Milner. Previous winners include Caltech’s Alexei Kitaev, the Ronald and Maxine Linde Professor of Theoretical Physics and Mathematics. 

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