A theoretical physicist who has never had a regular job has won the most lucrative prize in science 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 foundations for the broader discipline of quantum information.
Deutsch, 69, became known as the “father of quantum computing” after proposing an exotic – and so far unbuildable – machine to test the existence of parallel universes. His paper in 1985 paved the way for the rudimentary quantum computers scientists are working on today.
“It was a thought experiment that involved a computer, and that computer had some quantum components in it,” Deutsch recalls. “Today it would be called a universal quantum computer, but it took another six years for me to think of it as that.”
The Breakthrough prizes, described by their Silicon Valley founders as the Oscars of science, are dished out annually to scientists and mathematicians deemed worthy by committees of previous winners. This year there is one physics prize, three life science prizes, and a further prize in mathematics. Each is worth $3m.
One life science prize honors researchers who traced narcolepsy to brain cells that are wiped out by wayward immune responses. The discovery has 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 of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden for discovering that proteins – the workhorses of cells – form teams that resemble flash mobs, with implications for neurodegenerative diseases. A team at DeepMind in London scooped the third life sciences prize for AlphaFold, an artificial intelligence program that predicted the structures of nearly every protein known to science.
The math prize was awarded to Daniel Spielman at Yale University for work that helps high-definition TVs handle messy signals, delivery companies find the quickest routes, and scientists avoid biases in clinical trials.
Deutsch was born in Israel, to parents who survived the Holocaust, and was raised 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 the US physicist Hugh Everett III. Believe Everett – though many struggle to – and events that unfold in our universe spawn unseen parallel worlds where alternative realities play out.
Deutsch, who makes a living from books, lectures, grants and prizes, drove quantum computing forwards with descriptions of quantum bits, or qubits, and wrote the first quantum algorithm that would outperform its classical equivalent.
He shares the prize with Peter Shor at MIT, an expert in quantum algorithms, along with Gilles Brassard at the University of Montreal and Charles Bennett at IBM in New York, who developed unbreakable forms of quantum cryptography and helped to invent quantum teleportation – a way of sending information from one place to another.
It took years of painstaking work by Emmanuel Mignot at Stanford University and Masashi Yanagisawa at the University of Tsukuba to uncover the cause of narcolepsy, a serious sleep disorder, for which they shared a biology prize. Mignot’s studies of narcoleptic dogs traced the condition back to mutated receptors in the brain. Yanagisawa, meanwhile, discovered orexin, a neurotransmitter, that worked through the receptor. At first, Yanagisawa thought that orexin played a role in appetite, but mice that lacked it appeared to eat normally. It was only after he decided to video the animals at night (mice are nocturnal) that his team noticed that they suddenly fell asleep. “That was really a eureka moment,” Yanagisawa said.
Further work by Mignot found that humans with narcolepsy lack orexin in part of the brain called the hippocampus. Groups of cells that produce orexin are believed to be killed off by wayward immune reactions, a reason narcolepsy rose in the 2009 “swine flu” pandemic. The work paved the way for new drugs that treat narcolepsy by mimicking orexin.
A third life sciences prize has gone to Demis Hassabis and John Jumper at the Alphabet company DeepMind. The team set out to solve a 50-year-old grand challenge in biology, namely to predict how proteins fold up. Because a protein’s shape determines its function, this has immense importance for understanding diseases and finding drugs to treat them.
Earlier this year, the DeepMind team released the structures of 200m proteins, spurring work in areas as diverse as malaria and recycling plastics. Hassabis calls it both “the most meaningful thing done with AI in the sciences” and a starting point: a proof of principle that puzzles expected to outlast our lifetimes can be solved with AI.
Before the pandemic, the winners of the Breakthrough prizes, 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 goes ahead this year, Deutsch, who performed a TED talk via robot, is unlikely to attend, at least in this universe. “Like conversations,” he said. “But I don’t like going anywhere.”