Working the red carpet, part 1

Breakthrough2015

Tomorrow the annual Breakthrough Prize ceremony, created by venture capitalist Yuri Milner in 2012, with the help of a group of Silicon Valley luminaries, will include mathematicians for the second time.  I was on hand last year, at the cavernous Hangar One in Mountain View, wearing a press badge, and that’s why I was on the distribution list for the above Media Advisory.

The Breakthrough Prize media team, every one of them shockingly young, had me registered as a representative of slate.com.  How I acquired that status is a somewhat long and complicated story.  It’s easier to explain why I wanted to be there.  The ceremony coincided with last year’s program on New Geometric Methods in Number Theory and Automorphic Forms at MSRI in Berkeley.  As one of the organizers, I spend the second half of the semester in Berkeley, and I (very) naively thought that mathematicians would be invited to the Nasa Ames Research Center Mountain View for the ceremony.  Then I would be able to make use of the opportunity to write about the circumstances and the implications of this extraordinary encounter between high-level mathematical research, Silicon Valley business culture, and Hollywood glamour, whose organizers hoped to turn science into something like this or this.  When I learned that mathematicians were, in fact, unwelcome in Hangar One — with the exception of the prize-winners, of course — I was naturally convinced that the encounter would in some ways be even more extraordinary than I had imagined, and resolved to go there anyway.

The article I published on slate.com, under the title Dispatch from the Oscars of Science, ran just under 1100 words.  I had gone through enough material, in English and Russian, about Silicon Valley, Hollywood, Russian oligarchs, and the history of prizes in mathematics, for ten articles that length.  My files contain few revelations and I doubt I’ll have anything to say about them here.  What I would like to say is that my fieldwork as a certified member of the media was endlessly entertaining, and I recommend it to anyone who has some free time and an idea.

A few revelations nonetheless, as we wait for this year’s Laureates to be announced.  First of all, the red carpet really is red.  But it’s somewhat less than a carpet, and also somewhat more:  it’s an indispensable prop to a certain kind of spectacle that is itself indispensable to creating the very society of spectacle which alone confers sense on ceremonies like the one I attended at Mountain View.  If that sounds circular it’s because the process is circular, yet derives a measure of reality through the potent mixture of money and celebrity — to which the Breakthrough Prize adds scientific talent.  If it had fit in my article I would have liked to quote what Christina Aguilera told Vanity Fair:

“Through Yuri [Milner], I’ve been hanging out with the Google guys, Facebook guys. I find them all to be so down to earth. It’s really refreshing.”

That’s money meeting celebrity:  not a lot of hanging out was reported between the celebrities and the scientists.  But, as someone (maybe Yuri Milner himself) explained on the red carpet, “If you look far enough back you will always find a scientist.”

I also wrote this enigmatic paragraph on my cell phone, quoting celebrities and laureates as they paraded past my berth:

99% of the time we spend looking down.  All this information accumulated can be developed.  Smart agents.  Artificial intell.  This is a platform for them to explain to millions of people.  Can we see your dress?

And this, I think, was a verbatim quotation, somewhat truncated, from Anne Wojcicki’s lengthy interview with the assembled press:

I’m a consumer and I want my own data.  It’s going to happen.

The media were squeezed into a series of raised berths alongside the red carpet.  The first few berths were for the local and national press and TV, and that’s where the celebrities spent the most of their time.  I was in the last berth, with another cohort of shockingly young representatives of press organs devoted to lifestyle, fashion, high-tech, and various combinations of the three, and with a small commando of paparazzi perched at the very end of our dais, where they could get the best angles.

Anne Wojcicki, Eddie Redmayne (in Photos by John Salangsang for @bfa_nyc. #johnphotography #BFAinSF #BreakthroughPrizeAwards #NASA), Kate Beckinsale (in Etro, Salvatore Ferragamo heels, Rauwolf clutch and Swarovski earrings), and former Israeli President Ehud Barak (what was he doing there?) came close enough to where I was standing for me to see their makeup and listen to their remarks for the press.  So I can reveal that the best-looking people at the ceremony that night, male or female, were the journalists, not the people on the red carpet (with the exception of Richard Taylor’s lovely family, whose red carpet photo seems to have disappeared from the web); and that the paparazzi and the video camera operators, not the host and the presenters, had the funniest lines of the evening.  That was fine with me; I was there to interview the interviewers, not the celebrities.  Most of what I learned was distilled into the text of the slate.com article, but in the interests of (social) science I will copy a message one of the style journalists sent me a few days after the event:

I was hoping to get a few celebrity quotes while on the red carpet from
Kate Beckinsale, Cameron Diaz, etc, relating to the event but also
providing readers with something they may not have known about them. (ie
“If you were to work in the field of math, science, or tech, what
profession would most appeal to you?” or “What was your experience with
math and science in the classroom and even throughout your life?”—stuff
like that). If we had the celebrity angle, we could have run an article
that touched on the awards in the intro as we set the scene. That celeb
angle would bring the Breakthrough Awards to a Hollywood level in the eyes
of our readers…(from the thoughts of someone less into STEM and more
into pop culture: Jon Hamm showed up, so this is something that may
concern me).

Because I didn’t get any exclusive content, we’re not going to run
anything. There are photos from the event on our social media accounts
but simply recapping the event isn’t really worth it unless we had
something specific and unique to work off of.

Before I sign off I feel I should mention that, according to the Media Advisory, one of this year’s celebrity presenters will be Lily Collins.  While her fellow presenter Russell Crowe is probably one of the world’s most recognizable mathematicians, Collins is best known for playing Snow White (opposite Julia Roberts as the Queen) in Mirror Mirror. But she also starred in The Mortal Instruments as Clary Fray, who “learns that she descends from a line of warriors who protect our world from demons. She joins forces with others like her and heads into a dangerous alternate New York called Downworld.”  The threats facing mathematics are notoriously demonic, and I sincerely hope Lily Collins will be presenting the mathematics awards.

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