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Breakthrough Prize ceremony shines glitzy scientific spotlight on cosmic mappers

A color-coded projection map of the full sky shows temperature variations as measured by NASA’s Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe. (NASA Photo)

This year’s Breakthrough Prizes, cast as the “Oscars of Science,” are going to genetic engineers, disease fighters, math whizzes — and the scientists on the cosmos-mapping team behind the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, or WMAP.

Today’s award of $22 million in prizes is being wrapped into a ceremony at NASA’s Ames Research Center that combines Hollywood glitz with Silicon Valley brainpower.

Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman is the host for the show, which is being televised by National Geographic and streamed live via Facebook and YouTube at 7 p.m. PT tonight. Celebrity presenters include Ashton Kutcher (“That ’70s Show”); his wife, Mila Kunis (“Bad Moms”); and Kerry Washington (“Scandal”).

The prize program was established in 2012 by Russian billionaire Yuri Milner and his wife, Julia Milner, in league with Google co-founder Sergey Brin, 23andMe CEO Anne Wojcicki, and Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan.

It ranks among science’s richest award programs, with seven $3 million prizes being awarded this year in life sciences, fundamental physics and mathematics. Another $1 million is going out to early-career scientists, students and teachers.

This year’s physics award is notable in that it’s being shared by 27 researchers on the science team for WMAP, which produced a precedent-setting map of the cosmic microwave background radiation nearly 15 years ago.

“This is amazing, and certainly surprising,” Charles Bennett, an astrophysicist at Johns Hopkins University and the principal investigator for the WMAP mission, told GeekWire in advance of tonight’s ceremony. “We knew we were doing something important, but you never know how it’s going to be received until it all happens.”

Bennett and four other team leaders — the University of British Columbia’s Gary Hinshaw and Princeton’s Norman Jarosik, David Spergel and Lyman Page — will take the biggest shares of the $3 million prize. But everyone involved in the project will benefit.

Charles Bennett
Astrophysicist Charles Bennett is among the winners of this year’s Breakthrough Prizes, styled as the “Oscars of Science.” (JHU Photo)

Back in 2003, WMAP’s scientists analyzed tiny temperature variations in the microwave background radiation, left behind by the afterglow of the Big Bang, to come up with what were then unprecedented measurements of the universe’s age and composition.

The results suggested that the Big Bang happened about 13.8 billion years ago, producing a universe that is dominated by mysterious ingredients known as dark matter and dark energy.

“It’s relatively simple, but at the same time strange, that only about 5 percent of the universe is atoms,” Bennett said.

About 25 percent consists of dark matter, an exotic class of stuff that can be detected only by its gravitational effect. Dark energy, a factor contributing to the accelerating expansion of the universe, accounts for the other 70 percent.

“In one fell swoop, we had a quantification of the universe that was pretty robust,” Bennett said.

At the time, the findings were hailed as a “cosmic convergence” of measurements made by multiple instruments. Since then, follow-up campaigns such as the European Space Agency’s Planck mission have largely confirmed WMAP’s view of the universe — but Bennett acknowledged that some nagging “tensions” have cropped up and have yet to be reconciled.

For example, the measurements derived from observations of the universe at different scales of the “cosmic distance ladder” suggest that the universe is expanding significantly more rapidly than scientists would have thought, based on data from WMAP and Planck.

“I predict that these tensions are going to get worse,” Bennett said.

Future studies could resolve the tensions, lead to new insights into the nature of dark energy and dark matter, or even open the door to new theories and completely new perspectives on the cosmos.

The multibillion-dollar Large Hadron Collider and other particle detectors could make headway on solving the cosmic mysteries. So could ground-based telescopes such as the Cosmology Large Angular Scale Surveyor, or CLASS, a project led by Johns Hopkins University. Meanwhile, in space, the European Space Agency’s Gaia and Euclid missions should help crack the case.

“The future is pretty bright for making additional Breakthrough Prizes in cosmology,” Bennett said.

Here’s the lineup of other Breakthrough Prizes announced today:

Life Sciences

  • Don Cleveland, University of California at San Diego: “For elucidating the molecular pathogenesis of a type of inherited ALS, including the role of glia in neurodegeneration, and for establishing antisense oligonucleotide therapy in animal models of ALS and Huntington disease.”
  • Joanne Chory, Salk Institute for Biological Studies and Howard Hughes Medical Institute: “For discovering the molecular mechanisms by which plants extract information from light and shade to modify their programs of shoot and leaf growth in the photosynthetic harvest of light.”
  • Kim Nasmyth, University of Oxford: “For elucidating the sophisticated mechanism that mediates the perilous separation of duplicated chromosomes during cell division and thereby prevents genetic diseases such as cancer.”
  • Peter Walter, University of California at San Francisco: “For elucidating the unfolded protein response, a cellular quality-control system that detects disease-causing unfolded proteins and directs cells to take corrective measures. “
  • Kazutoshi Mori, Kyoto University: “Also, for elucidating the unfolded protein response, a cellular quality-control system that detects disease-causing unfolded proteins and directs cells to take corrective measures.”


  • The University of Utah’s Christopher Hacon and UCSD’s James McKernan: “For transformational contributions to birational algebraic geometry, especially to the minimal model program in all dimensions.”

New Horizons Prizes

$100,000 prizes recognize the achievements of early-career physicists and mathematicians:

  • Physics: Christopher Hirata (Ohio State University), Andrea Young (University of California, Santa Barbara), and Douglas Stanford (Institute for Advanced Study and Stanford University).
  • Mathematics: Aaron Naber (Northwestern University), Maryna Viazovska (École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne), Zhiwei Yun (Yale University), and Wei Zhang (Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Columbia University).

Breakthrough Junior Challenge

The third annual Breakthrough Junior Challenge recognizes Hillary Diane Andales,18, of the Philippines. She will receive $250,000 in educational prizes; her science teacher will receive $50,000; and her school will receive a new science laboratory valued at $100,000, designed by and in partnership with Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. Andales was the top scorer in the Popular Vote Challenge that was conducted as part of last year’s Breakthrough Junior Challenge.

This year’s video, submitted in the physics category, focused on reference frames in general relativity:

The Breakthrough Prize ceremony is being aired at 7 p.m. PT today on the National Geographic Channel, and streamed on the Breakthrough Facebook and YouTube channels as well as National Geographic TV’s Facebook and YouTube channels.

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A freelance writer’s guide to writing over 25,000 words each month

As a freelance writer, I know that keeping up a consistent writing output is a key factor in my career. The nature of freelancing makes it very tempting to slack off some days, though I may feel extremely motivated during others. Over the years, I’ve come up with a tried-and-tested schedule that I stick to pretty much every week. This schedule has not only helped me stay motivated more consistently but has also had the welcomed effect of helping me write 25,000 words each month… and sometimes more. And, whether you’re a freelancer like me or a full-time copywriter for…

This story continues at The Next Web

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The first SMS was sent 25 years ago. Here’s why it’s still relevant.

Feel old yet? The first SMS was sent 25 years ago today. For context, that makes it older than Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, and Harry Styles. If the SMS was a person, it’d be a debt-crushed millennial, still living with their parents while spending their money on extravagances like avocado toast and iPhones. (And if you’re wondering, the first ever SMS said “Merry Christmas.”) But while all Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, and Harry Styles have to look forward to 25 years after their careers took flight is a guest appearance on Dr Phil’s couch, the SMS has somehow managed to…

This story continues at The Next Web

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With $1M in funding, Phase Genomics looks to crack genetic codes and discover unknown bacteria

Phase Genomics co-founders, Shaw Sullivan (left) and Ivan Liachko. (Phase Genomics Photo)

Bacteria lurk pretty much anywhere you look, in numbers and varieties worthy of a horror movie. The challenge for scientists who actually want to pry into these dark corners, packed with microbes, is identifying the individual organisms and figuring out which are commingling inside cells.

Phase Genomics, the first startup to spin out of the University of Washington’s Genome Sciences department, has developed the technology to help solve that riddle. The company recently landed $1 million in funding to ramp up its operations.

The founders are Ivan Liachko, a biologist, and Shawn Sullivan, a software expert who “built cool things at Microsoft for eight years,” according to Liachko.

“We knew each other prior to founding Phase, having spent nearly five years trying to kill each other playing Dungeons & Dragons,” Liachko said.

The enterprise launched in 2015 in a tiny, windowless room that was formerly a supply closet in the UW’s CoMotion biotech incubator.

The company has three products and services already on the market and promises new products are coming soon. The technology can be used to sequence the DNA of any organism — their first complete genome was for a goat — and has been used on plants, birds, various mammals and loads of bacteria.

The use of the Phase Genomics’ tools on samples containing bacteria and viruses, the search for “microbiomes,” is helpful for scientists studying agriculture, disease, health diagnostics, basic research and industries that try to harness microorganisms to generate different chemicals.

“Practically the entire scientific community in this field is mining microbiome samples,” Liachko said. “We’ve developed a brand-new pick for these mining efforts.”

Because microorganisms like bacteria live all jumbled together and often can’t even survive on their own, scientists have had a tough time isolating many individual species of bacteria and decoding their genomes. When they try sequencing the DNA from a mix of microbes, a process that requires chopping all the genomes into pieces, they can’t tell which segments of code came from which organism.

A wall in the Phase Genomics lab displays images of the plants and animals that the researchers have helped sequence the genomes of. (Phase Genomics Photo)

“It’s like taking 1,000 jigsaw puzzles and mixing them up and you don’t know which piece comes from which puzzle,” Liachko said.

Inside cells, DNA is tangled up in “hairballs,” as Liachko describes it. Phase Genomics’ “pick” works by taking a sample and sort of freezing all of the hairballs in place. When the hairballs are then chopped up for sequencing, the scientists can still tell which strands were touching each other in the hairball phase. Using that information, it’s possible to string together which segments of DNA came from the same organism, building a complete genome.

The whole process takes about a week from sample to results.

Phase Genomics is hiring in order to keep scaling up their efforts, and the new funding will help. The money includes venture capital from Congruent Ventures and Washington Research Foundation, and “little bit of angel money,” Liachko said.

They’re planning to stay on the UW campus, and currently occupy a lab with actual windows, glass-walled offices and “infinite coffee.”

“We have strongly benefited from the support of UW and the local community,” Liachko said, “which helped us bootstrap into a revenue generating company without outside investment.”

Now countless microscopic creatures can be revealed.

“Every time we process a sample, we get tons of new organisms,” Liachko said. “They’ve always been there, but no one has been able to sequence them.”

We caught up with Liachko for our Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.

Ivan Liachko is a biologist and one of the inventors of the technology being used by Phase Genomics to sequence DNA. (Phase Genomics Photo)

Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: “We enable biologists to make new discoveries about microbes, plants and animals that were expensive or impossible before. We do this through a mix of proprietary laboratory tools and a powerful cloud-based data analysis engine.”

Inspiration hit us when: “The initial light bulb went off during a seminar at the UW. This sparked a number of collaborative projects with other scientists both at the UW and elsewhere. After a few of these proof-of-concept projects, we were so impressed by the power of this technology that we decided it would be a crime against science not to commercialize it. We are continuously engaging in interesting research and discovery efforts to try and maximize the number of scientists that we can help with our platform.”

VC, Angel or Bootstrap: “We have bootstrapped our company to its current size. We find that this method is great for learning how to run an efficient and hungry organization and to discover what customers really want. Not all startups have the option of doing this, but for us doing it ‘the hard way’ has reaped huge benefits.”

Our ‘secret sauce’ is: A unique wet-lab method combined with innovative software and love.

The smartest move we’ve made so far: Hiring a team of incredible people.

The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: Too early to tell, I’m sure we will find out eventually…

The genetic code for Papadum the goat was the first noteworthy research published from sequencing done using Phase Genomics’ technology. Papadum comes from a rare goat population found on San Clemente Island, one of California’s Channel Islands. The sequencing was so complete and successful, the goat holds the world record for the most contiguous mammalian genome for an organism not used in research science. (Phase Genomics Photo)

Would you rather have Gates, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: “Gates, due to his focus on global impact. Our mission is to use our technology to transform the way genome and microbiome research is done, enabling scientists everywhere to make discoveries that were previously impossible.”

Our favorite team-building activity is: General nerdery (we slay puzzle rooms).

The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: People who love what they do and take pride in being great at what they do.

What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: “Talk to everyone and leverage other people’s experiences. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and get advice, but make up your own mind in the end.”

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Will Seattle benefit when Amazon grows elsewhere? An economist and an investor weigh in

Amazon office buildings and cranes dot the Seattle skyline. (GeekWire Photo / Nat Levy)

Seattle has done its fair share of hand-wringing in the months following Amazon’s announcement that it will establish a second corporate headquarters. With memories of Boeing’s departure lingering, speculation that the region’s top private employer might contract its presence in its hometown or send a message that Seattle is closed for business by searching for HQ2 swirled.

A leading investor and an economist threw water on those concerns, going so far as to say Amazon HQ2 could be good for Seattle’s economy, during an event at the Seattle Rotary this week.

I sat down at the event with Heather Redman, co-founder of venture capital firm Flying Fish Partners and the chair of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, and Matthew Gardner, Windermere Real Estate chief economist, to talk Amazon HQ2. Watch the video below or continue reading to find out what they had to say when I asked whether Amazon’s search for a second headquarters could be a boon to Seattle.

Heather Redman: “I think diversity is always good. Diversity of employment and diversity of employers is good and having some elbow room for smaller companies to be able to hire, to be able to lease is great. I will say that Amazon has hugely benefited us in terms of the talent that it has attracted here. People who had never heard of Seattle, people from India, people from China, people from the East Coast who have never heard of Seattle — there are those people — coming here and saying, ‘Wow, I love it. I want to stay.’ Those people are now people that my portfolio companies can hire, which is good.

Heather Redman

“The countervailing thing to this idea that Amazon is going to create some elbow room for us is that I think we’re about to experience a post-election boom. I think getting Jenny Durkan elected, which we at the Chamber worked very hard to do through our PAC, I think is a thing that the Bay Area, in particular, has been waiting for and probably some folks in China and some people in Japan and Korea and Europe, as well. I actually think we’re about to experience another growth spike because if you’re Facebook, if you’re Mercedes, if you’re Alibaba, you’re looking at Seattle. You’re saying, ‘I would love to grow my engineering team there’ or ‘I would love to start my engineering team there but I don’t know if Seattle’s crazy.’ I think that by electing Jenny, we were able to establish Seattle is not crazy and that will create a lot more movement here. I think we had a little bit of an artificial pause in our growth as we were looking at that election and we still have more tests to pass … but I do feel that we’re going to see a lot of pressure from non-Amazon tech companies or companies that want to be more tech over the next 12 to 18 months.”

Matthew Gardner

Matthew Gardner: “On the commercial side, yeah, if they’re not sucking up every square foot that there is in the marketplace, that’s going to help other companies. It might cause not compression in rental rates but a slowdown in the increase in rental rates. That’s going to be a good thing.

On construction as well, everyone, they’re all building for Amazon and doing remarkably well. If that slows down then their costs escalation might slow down a bit. That may help other commercial developers. On the apartment side, rental rates have really gone parabolic over the last several years. If we see that slow down, I will not be unhappy about that whatsoever.  So I think yes, if they’re not sucking everything out of Seattle on the commercial side or even the residential side that can actually be a positive rather than a negative.”

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Week in Review: Most popular stories on GeekWire for the week of Nov. 26, 2017

Get caught up on the latest technology and startup news from the past week. Here are the most popular stories on GeekWire for the week of Nov. 26, 2017.

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Most popular stories on GeekWire

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Russell Wilson hits Jimmy Graham for TD in 4th straight game

Nov 9, 2017; Glendale, AZ, USA; Seattle Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham (88) celebrates after catching a touchdown against the Arizona Cardinals in the second half at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

There was some doubt as to whether or not Seattle Seahawks tight end Jimmy Graham would be able to suit up for Sunday night’s game against the Philadelphia Eagles as he nursed an ankle injury.

Any concerns were quickly squelched in the first quarter, with Wilson finding Graham for a touchdown for the fourth consecutive game.

Graham is starting to return to old form when it comes to efficiency in the red zone, with the score being his ninth of the season.

It also happened to be the first touchdown the Eagles defense has allowed in the first quarter all season.

The post Russell Wilson hits Jimmy Graham for TD in 4th straight game appeared first on FanRag Sports.

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Spurs SF Kyle Anderson leaves game with knee injury

Dec 1, 2017; Memphis, TN, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard Kyle Anderson (1) drives against Memphis Grizzlies guard James Ennis III (8) in the second half at FedExForum. Spurs won 95-79. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Still awaiting the return of star small forward Kawhi Leonard, the San Antonio Spurs lost another member of the rotation during Sunday’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Small forward Kyle Anderson went down with a left knee injury on a drive to the basket with just more than a minute remaining in the third quarter.

Anderson was helped off the court and to the Spurs locker room by teammates LaMarcus Aldridge and Manu Ginobili.

Currently in his fourth NBA season, Anderson’s averaging 9.0 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.0 assists in 27.7 minutes per game. Anderson’s shooting 51.3 percent from the field, a significant improvement when considering the fact that he shot no better than 46.8 percent in any of his first three seasons in the NBA.

With the aforementioned Leonard having been sidelined due to a right quadriceps injury, Anderson was moved into the starting lineup by head coach Gregg Popovich to fill the void. In Saturday’s win over Memphis, Anderson scored just five points, which ended a run of six consecutive games in which he reached double figures in scoring.

Anderson had two double-doubles during that stretch, a 13-points, 10-assist outing in a win over Atlanta on Nov. 20, and a 12-point, 10-rebound effort one week later in a win over Dallas.

Before leaving Sunday’s game Anderson accounted for five points, four assists, three rebounds and two steals in 22 minutes of action. With Kyle Anderson out, Davis Bertans stood to see more action, with Bertans having accounted for 16 points, four rebounds and five blocked shots in the game.

The post Spurs SF Kyle Anderson leaves game with knee injury appeared first on FanRag Sports.

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Eli Manning comments on Ben McAdoo’s future

Dec 3, 2017; Oakland, CA, USA; New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning (10) stands on the sideline during action against the Oakland Raiders in the fourth quarter at Oakland Coliseum. Mandatory Credit: Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time since 2004, the New York Giants played a game without Eli Manning as their starting quarterback on Sunday. Manning was benched in favor of backup Geno Smith, yet the team still lost on the road to the Oakland Raiders, dropping to 2-10 on the year.

After the game, Manning made a point amidst speculation that he could retire come season’s end that he planned to return to the field in 2018.

“I plan on playing next season,” Manning said, per ESPN.

Just who Manning’s coach would be if he is still a member of the Giants in 2018 is much more up in the air, as current head coach Ben McAdoo is reportedly on the hot seat. When asked about McAdoo and whether or not he wanted him fired following his benching, Manning responded:

“I don’t want that. I don’t want anybody to get fired. When a coach gets fired, it’s usually because the team, the players and myself haven’t performed up to our duties. I don’t want to see that. So I hope there is no truth to it.”

After leading New York to a playoff berth in his first season with the franchise in 2016, McAdoo has seen 2017 unravel in front of his eyes. The team has played the majority of the season without their two top receiving targets in Odell Beckham Jr. and Brandon Marshall, but their 189 points remain the fewest in the NFC and the second-fewest in all of football.

McAdoo has especially received backlash following his handling of Manning’s benching, turning the reins over to the duo of Geno Smith and Davis Webb under center.

The post Eli Manning comments on Ben McAdoo’s future appeared first on FanRag Sports.

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