World's brightest scientists gather at Stanford to celebrate fundamental research

Stanford hosted the second annual Breakthrough Prize Symposium to celebrate the biggest advances in physics, life sciences and mathematics, and to discuss strategies for generating funding and excitement for basic research.

Steve Jennings/Getty Images Breakthrough Symposium

Moderator Fred Guterl, left, John Hennessy, Sam Hawgood and Graham Fleming discuss this year's prize-winning research on the panel at the Breakthrough Prize Breakfast & Symposium.

The payoff of fundamental research is often far from scientists' minds. For instance, the GPS in smartphones would not be possible without Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity, which he published in 1916.

The Breakthrough Prize aims to recognize the scientists who make these types of fundamental discoveries. On Monday, the 2015 winners of the prizes for physics, life sciences and mathematics, as well as dozens of other standout scientists, convened at Stanford University for the second annual Breakthrough Symposium.

Throughout the daylong event, the speakers touched on common themes: the crucial need for sustained funding for basic science research and the growing importance of interdisciplinary collaborations.

In a morning discussion, Stanford President John Hennessy was asked to predict the next big breakthrough. He replied by invoking a famous quotation from the influential computer scientist Alan Kay: "The best way to predict the future is to invent it."

Hennessy identified three areas as the most likely to produce advances that will significantly improve the way we live: neuroscience, next-generation batteries and information technology. An ever-growing body of work makes these fields ripe for a breakthrough, he said, but there is also a sense of urgency to push forward in each of these disciplines.

For instance, although the past several decades have seen tremendous advancements in computing technology, Moore's Law is slowing down. Just as the first wave of advancement was made through the fundamental discoveries of the integrated circuit and semiconductor, he said, the next big jump in computing power will be born out of basic research.

"If we don't find an alternative technology, that's going to end," Hennessy said. "If you want to invent an alternative technology, you better start today, because it starts with people doing basic physics that people 20 years from now can use to build new technologies."

Hennessy was joined on the panel by Sam Hawgood, the chancellor of the University of California, San Francisco, and Graham Fleming, vice chancellor for research at the University of California, Berkeley. The trio noted that revitalizing the K-12 education system and finding ways to build a passion for science and math at a young age are key to the continued excellence of America's universities.

Collaboration among academic institutions will be important, Hennessy said, as many of the obstacles we face are too complex and require more work than any one of us can do on our own.

That was emphasized as Jennifer Doudna of UC-Berkeley and Emmanuelle Charpentier, of Umea University in Sweden, described the work that led to the genome-editing technique that earned them a 2015 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. When they began collaborating, they were independently investigating bacterial immune responses.

Working together, they discovered that bacteria fight off influenza by activating genes and producing special enzymes that slice up the invading virus' DNA. The revelation led to the development of the CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing tool, which could allow scientists to one day excise or correct harmful DNA in a person's genome.

"When we started, we had no idea where that fundamental research would go, but we soon realized it could be a powerful tool in genome engineering," Doudna said.

Such serendipitous results permeate scientific fields. Saul Perlmutter, an astrophysicist at UC-Berkeley, won the 2015 Breakthrough Prize in Physics for his work in showing that the universe is expanding. He and his colleagues had set out to observe the fine movements of distant supernovae to measure the slowing rate of the universe's expansion, or if, in fact, it had already begun to collapse. Instead, they learned that the universe is still expanding.

"It had seemed like we couldn't go wrong. But we threw an apple in the air, and instead of falling down, it blasted off," he said. "But that's the next best thing for a scientist. Instead of finding your answer, you discover a whole new question."

This discovery yielded new clues into the nature of dark energy, which makes up three-quarters of the energy in the universe. We can't expect to tap dark energy to solve the world's energy crisis, but an improved understanding of it might yield a new insight into energy research, Perlmutter said, echoing Hennessy's earlier call for broader funding for basic research.

"This is a classic issue," Perlmutter said. "When you learn something very deep about how the world works, it somehow makes us more capable."