Awards, People, Research, Science & environment

Two young faculty awarded 2021 Breakthrough New Horizons Prizes

Song Sun and Geoff Penington will receive their early-career awards at a gala postponed until March 2021

Song Sun and Geoff Penington
Song Sun and Geoff Penington will share the 2021 New Horizons Prizes in mathematics and physics, respectively.

Two recently arrived faculty members, Song Sun in mathematics and Geoff Penington in physics, are among 12 early-career scientists sharing New Horizons Prizes, which are awarded each year by the Breakthrough Foundation.

The prizes were announced Sept. 10 along with the Breakthrough Prizes in life sciences, fundamental physics and math, often called the Oscars of science. The prizes, totaling $18.75 million, will be awarded at a gala in March 2021, a postponement from the normal October event because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Sun, an associate professor of mathematics who came to UC Berkeley in 2018, will share the 2021 New Horizons in Mathematics Prize — including $100,000 — with Bhargav Bhatt of the University of Michigan and Aleksandr Logunov of Princeton University. He was cited “for many groundbreaking contributions to complex differential geometry, including existence results for Kahler-Einstein metrics and connections with moduli questions and singularities.”

Penington, who joined the Berkeley faculty in July 2020 and is the Arnold and Barbara Silverman Distinguished Professor in Physics, will share the 2021 New Horizons in Physics Prize with eight others representing three groups of researchers. His group, which will split one-third of the prize, includes Ahmed Almheiri of the Institute for Advanced Study in New Jersey, Netta Engelhardt of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Henry Maxfield of UC Santa Barbara. They were cited “for calculating the quantum information content of a black hole and its radiation.”

Urmila Mahadev

Urmila Mahadev giving a computer science seminar at UC Berkeley in 2018. (Photo by Jana Ašenbrennerová, courtesy of Quanta Magazine)

A recent Berkeley graduate, Urmila Mahadev, will share the inaugural $50,000 Maryam Mirzakhani New Frontiers Prize, which is presented to women mathematicians who have completed their Ph.D.s within the past two years. Mahadev, who was awarded a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and computer science in 2018 and was appointed an assistant professor of computing and mathematical sciences at the California Institute of Technology this year, was cited “for work that addresses the fundamental question of verifying the output of a quantum computation.”

This is the ninth year for the Breakthrough Prizes, which were founded by Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, Yuri and Julia Milner and Anne Wojcicki. The prizes have been sponsored by the personal foundations established by Brin, Chan and Zuckerberg, Ma Huateng, Jack Ma, the Milners and Wojcicki.

Previous Berkeley winners of the Breakthrough Prize were Jennifer Doudna and Saul Perlmutter and his cosmology team in 2014, and mathematician Ian Agol and physicist Kam-Biu Luk in 2015. Physicist Surjeet Rajendran shared a New Horizon Prize in 2016. These previous laureates helped choose this year’s winners.

Breakthrough Prize announcement