The Breakthrough Prize ceremony is an annual awards show that celebrates leading researchers working in the fundamental sciences. At this year’s ceremony, Breakthrough Prize Co-Founder Yuri Milner paid tribute to 19th-century physicist James Clerk Maxwell.
In addition to co-founding the Breakthrough Prize, Yuri Milner helped launch the Breakthrough Initiatives, the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, and Tech For Refugees. He has also joined the Giving Pledge.
Maxwell is a lesser-known scientist in the public consciousness. However, his work ranks amongst Einstein’s and Newton’s for its impact on our understanding of classical physics and the technology we use in our daily lives.
Maxwell: The Father of Modern Physics
Maxwell’s Electromagnetic Theory
Born in 1831 in Scotland, Maxwell is best known for formulating the first-ever electromagnetic theory. His theory and field equations described magnetism, electricity, and light as different expressions of the same phenomenon.
Maxwell realised that when electricity and magnetism flow together, they exist as waves of light. The scientist believed invisible waves were flowing around us, too.
Along with visible light, these invisible waves — radio waves, microwaves, infrared radiation, ultraviolet rays, X-rays, and gamma rays — form the electromagnetic spectrum. They weren’t discovered and harnessed until years after Maxwell predicted their existence.
Maxwell’s Influence on Other Areas of Science
During his lifetime, the scientist also made major contributions to other scientific disciplines. While in his 20s, Maxwell wrote a prize-winning essay that theorised the rings of Saturn consisted of “disconnected particles.”
The first Voyager space probe confirmed his theory more than 100 years later when the mission reached the planet. Saturn’s rings are made of “small chunks of ice and rock” that range in size from “tiny, dust-sized icy grains” to pieces “as big as a house.”
Maxwell also paved the way for certain fields of modern physics, such as quantum mechanics and special relativity.
Many modern scientists regard Maxwell as the 19th-century scientist who had the greatest influence on 20th-century physics.
Albert Einstein had high respect for Maxwell’s work. When told that he had achieved great things because he stood on Newton’s shoulders, Einstein replied: “No, I don’t. I stand on the shoulders of Maxwell.”
Born in 1879, the same year that Maxwell died, Einstein reconciled the Scottish scientist’s equations with the laws of Newtonian mechanics in his 1905 paper “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies.”
Einstein called the shift in scientific understanding that resulted from Maxwell’s work “the most profound and the most fruitful that physics has experienced since the time of Newton.”
Yuri Milner’s Tribute to Scottish Physicist at the “Oscars of Science”
While many know the names of Newton and Einstein, few know Maxwell’s name or the significance of his contributions. Yuri Milner took to the stage at the ninth Breakthrough Prize ceremony to honour Maxwell and raise awareness of his work.
For the first time, this year’s Breakthrough Prize ceremony took place in Los Angeles, at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. Stars of the stage and screen gathered to celebrate the Breakthrough Prize laureates and their scientific achievements.
A-list celebrities like Robert Downey Jr., Brie Larson, and Mark Zuckerberg presented awards at the glamorous event, which many have called the “Oscars of Science.” John Legend, Estelle, and will.i.am provided musical performances at the event. Actor James Corden hosted the event for the second time.
Introducing a video tribute to Maxwell, Yuri Milner said: “Much of the modern world came from the equations of one scientist who many of us have never even heard of. But, like our laureates tonight, he deserves to be celebrated.”
In his speech, Yuri Milner also emphasised that, while science and mathematics can seem dry, they are “full of beauty.” He added that many of the discoveries that have come from “mathematical beauty” have led to world-changing technologies.
We Live in Maxwell’s World
The Maxwell video tribute opened by framing telephone, video, and virtual technologies as superpowers that come from the invisible waves of the electromagnetic spectrum that surround us. Today, these waves underpin almost every aspect of our lives and have led to inventions like:
- The Global Positioning System (GPS).
- X-ray machines.
- Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).
- Fibre optics.
- Mobile phones.
The video explained that these inventions are a result of Maxwell’s work, which “distilled electricity and magnetism into simple equations.”
By sparking so many revolutionary discoveries, Maxwell’s “beautiful mathematical equations” have radically shaped the world as we know it today.
Maxwell’s Enduring Inspiration and Yuri Milner’s Vision for the Future
Before his tribute at the 2023 Breakthrough Prize ceremony, Yuri Milner referenced the influential Scottish scientist in his Eureka Manifesto (2021). The short book shares a vision of humanity unified by a common goal: to explore and understand our Universe.
Yuri Milner discusses milestones of scientific and technological progress in Eureka Manifesto. He acknowledges the work of scientists like Maxwell, Ben Franklin, and Michael Faraday in investigating magnetism and electricity. These great minds unified and tamed these forces “in the service of human prosperity.”
Yuri Milner writes: “These thinkers’ ideas have lit up the planet, sent our images and messages across it at the speed of light, and efficiently distributed the fruits of modern culture to every corner of it.”
Maxwell’s contribution to the world was undoubtedly immense. Besides his pioneering ideas about magnetism and electricity, perhaps Maxwell’s other greatest gift was the enduring inspiration he left for others.
Maxwell’s work inspired ground-breaking scientists like Einstein. But he also inspired innovators like Yuri Milner, who is changing the perception of science in popular culture.
By honouring great scientists of the past and present at high-profile events like the Breakthrough Prize ceremony, humanity might drive scientific progress further and inspire the next generation of Einsteins and Maxwells.
Watch the 2023 Breakthrough Prize ceremony.
About Yuri Milner
Yuri Milner is an Israeli entrepreneur, investor, philanthropist, and Giving Pledge signatory. His philanthropy focuses predominantly on furthering science and the spread of scientific ideas.
Yuri Milner and his wife Julia joined the Giving Pledge in 2012 to formalise their commitment to scientific causes. The couple vowed to donate at least half of their wealth during their lifetimes to such causes. That same year, the Milners launched the Breakthrough Prize in partnership with Mark Zuckerberg, Priscilla Chan, Ann Wojcicki, and Sergey Brin.
Over the last decade, Yuri Milner has co-founded further philanthropic initiatives in line with his Giving Pledge promise.
The Breakthrough Junior Challenge
The Breakthrough Junior Challenge is a global competition that encourages teenagers to engage with challenging scientific ideas. Anyone aged 13 to 18 can enter the competition by submitting a short video that explains a theory in physics, life sciences, or maths in a creative, illuminating way.
Launched in 2015, the Breakthrough Junior Challenge takes place annually. The prizes include a $250,000 post-secondary scholarship for the winner, $50,000 for the teacher who inspired them, and a $100,000 science lab for their school.
The Breakthrough Initiatives
While the Breakthrough Prize and Breakthrough Junior Challenge celebrate the work of leading and budding scientists, the Breakthrough Initiatives are active research programmes.
The five Breakthrough Initiatives — Listen, Watch, Starshot, Discuss, and Message — focus on unsolved questions in astronomy and cosmology. Questions such as: Are we alone in the Universe? Is there life on other planets? Can humanity reach the stars?
Tech For Refugees
Julia and Yuri Milner established Tech For Refugees in 2022 in response to the global refugee crisis. The non-profit initiative funds the refugee relief efforts of leading technology organisations.
Tech For Refugees’ partners include Airbnb.org, Flexport.org, Spotify, and Uber. The initiative has recently teamed up with UNICEF USA, the United Nations Children’s Fund, to support education for Ukrainian children.