A theoretical physicist who has never had a regular job has won the most lucrative science award for his pioneering contributions to the mind-bending field of quantum computing.
David Deutsch, who is affiliated with the University of Oxford, shares the $3m (about £2.65m) Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics with three other researchers who laid the groundwork for the wider discipline quantum information.
Deutsch, 69, became known as the “father of quantum computing” after he proposed an exotic – and so far unbuildable – machine to test the existence of parallel universes. His 1985 paper paved the way for the rudimentary quantum computers that scientists are working on today.
“It was a thought experiment that involved a computer, and that computer had quantum components in it,” Deutsch recalls. “Today it would be called a universal quantum computer, but it took me another six years to consider it as such.”
The Breakthrough Prizes, described by their Silicon Valley founders as the Oscars of science, are awarded annually to scientists and mathematicians deemed worthy by the committees of previous winners. This year there is one physics prize, three life science prizes and another math prize. Each is worth $3 million.
A life science award honors researchers who have traced narcolepsy to brain cells that are wiped out by capricious immune responses. This discovery opened the door to new treatments for sleep disorders.
A second prize goes to Clifford Brangwynne at Princeton and Anthony Hyman at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden for discovering that proteins – the workhorses of cells – form teams that resemble flashmobs, with implications for neurodegenerative diseases. A team from DeepMind in London has won the third Life Science Prize for AlphaFold, an artificial intelligence program that has predicted the structures of nearly every protein known to science.
The math prize goes to Daniel Spielman of Yale University for his work that helps high-definition televisions deal with disordered signals, delivery companies find the fastest routes, and scientists avoid bias in clinical tests.
Deutsch was born in Israel, to parents who survived the Holocaust, and grew up in north London, where his family ran a restaurant. For his PhD, he worked on quantum theory under Dennis Sciama at Oxford, who previously supervised Stephen Hawking and Lord Rees, the Astronomer Royal. While delving into the foundations of the theory, Deutsch became a fan of the Many Worlds interpretation proposed in 1957 by American physicist Hugh Everett III. Believe Everett – though many find it hard to believe – and events unfolding in our universe spawn unseen parallel worlds where alternate realities play out.
Deutsch, who lived off books, lectures, grants and prizes, advanced quantum computing with descriptions of quantum bits, or qubits, and wrote the first quantum algorithm that would surpass its classical counterpart.
He shares the prize with Peter Shor of MIT, an expert in quantum algorithms, as well as Gilles Brassard of the University of Montreal and Charles Bennett of IBM in New York, who developed unbreakable forms of quantum cryptography and helped invent the quantum teleportation – a way to send information from one place to another.
It took years of painstaking work by Emmanuel Mignot of Stanford University and Masashi Yanagisawa of the University of Tsukuba to discover the cause of narcolepsy, a serious sleep disorder, for which they share a biology prize. Mignot’s studies of narcoleptic dogs traced the disease to mutated receptors in the brain. Yanagisawa, meanwhile, discovered the neurotransmitter orexin, which worked through the receptor. At first, Yanagisawa thought orexin played a role in appetite, but the mice that lacked it seemed to eat normally. It was only after deciding to film the animals at night (mice are nocturnal) that his team noticed that they had suddenly fallen asleep. “It was truly a eureka moment,” Yanagisawa said.
Other work by Mignot found that humans with narcolepsy lack orexin in a part of the brain called the hippocampus. Groups of cells that produce orexin are thought to be killed by capricious immune responses, which is why narcolepsy increased during the ‘swine flu’ pandemic of 2009. The work paved the way for new drugs that treat narcolepsy by mimicking orexin.
A third award in Life Sciences was awarded to Demis Hassabis and John Jumper of Alphabet DeepMind. The team set out to solve a 50-year-old grand challenge in biology, namely to predict how proteins fold. Because the shape of a protein determines its function, this is of immense importance in understanding diseases and finding drugs to treat them.
Earlier this year, the DeepMind team published the structures of 200 million proteins, spurring work in areas as diverse as malaria and plastic recycling. Hassabis calls it both “the most meaningful thing done with AI in science” and a starting point: proof of principle that puzzles meant to last longer than our lives can be solved with AI.
Before the pandemic, winners of the Breakthrough Awards, founded by Sergey Brin, Mark Zuckerberg, Yuri Milner and others, received their awards at a glitzy, star-studded event in Silicon Valley. If the ceremony takes place this year, Deutsch, who gave a TED talk via a robot, is unlikely to attend, at least in this universe. “I like conversations,” he said. “But I don’t like to go anywhere.”