Since 1996, the news and editorial staff of Science have looked back at the past year of scientific discovery to select the Breakthrough of the Year. In 2021, for instance, Science recognized the solution to a challenge that had puzzled scientists for 50 years: How to predict the shape that a string of amino acids will fold into as it becomes a working protein. In two papers published simultaneously in Nature and Science in 2021, researchers showed how this could be done using artificial intelligence-driven software. Other recent Breakthroughs include 2019’s first-ever image of a black hole and 2020’s effective vaccines against COVID-19.
Now, an international cash prize component–the largest bestowed by any scientific society–will recognize the individual scientists whose research and activities are foundational to the Breakthrough of the Year, AAAS announced in July. After the news and editorial staff of Science select and publish the Science Breakthrough of the Year, a committee convened by the Science journals’ editor-in-chief will select up to three winners to receive the Mani L. Bhaumik Breakthrough of the Year Award. Starting in 2023, the convening of the selection committee will take place in January each year, and the announcement of the individual winner or winners will be made before the end of March.
Mani L. Bhaumik, a physicist whose work on laser technology paved the way for Lasik eye surgery, shares with AAAS and the Science family of journals a commitment to recognizing significant developments in scientific research. Bhaumik, whose gift is the largest in AAAS history, spoke with AAAS News & Notes about his inspirations and his current projects.
Q: Why was it important to you to enhance the Breakthrough of the Year with a new prize component that recognizes individual scientists?
A: The Breakthrough of the Year is done by people–it just doesn’t fall from the sky. People are really at the center of the Breakthrough.
I am still a practicing scientist at 91 years old, and I know that beyond sheer curiosity about our world, peer recognition is one of the things that drives us. To be able to recognize hard-working scientists with this award–and perhaps prompt even more good work–is exciting.
There are so many researchers focused on every aspect of every subject being considered for the Breakthrough of the Year. Choosing those scientists most integral to the winning research will be a big and challenging decision for the selection committee to make.
Q: Tell me about your connections with AAAS and Science.
A: I’ve been reading Science magazine since I started my career, when I came to California in 1959 and was working on laser development. When you are in such an active field, you have to run like crazy and know the latest updates. But Science also covers such diverse subjects. You get a glance of what’s important across many fields.
In 2019, I also endowed a prize at AAAS to support science communication and recognize excellent science communicators, the AAAS Mani L. Bhaumik Award for Public Engagement with Science. Many people think science is too esoteric. And even if they’re interested in the results, they might not understand the processes unless it is explained well. But it’s important for people to have that information in a way they can understand. Scientific knowledge is not just for scientists. It should be useful to everybody.
Some of my recent projects are focused on reaching audiences and sharing science with them in a meaningful way that makes sense to them. Recently I created a cartoon series for children called Cosmic Quantum Ray. I created a villain who breaks natural laws–he steals gravity. And the good guy, Quantum Ray, comes in with his crew and restores the gravity. It shows children how natural phenomena like gravity are all around us. I’m now working on a movie for adults about my main research interest: quantum field theory and how it shows that we’re all connected. There’s magic in moviemaking to get people to pay attention.
Q: Among your projects is the Bhaumik Educational Foundation, which allows students in rural West Bengal, India, to attend college for free. Why is it important for you to give back?
A: I came from extreme poverty–I didn’t have any shoes until I was 16. The nearest high school was about 4 miles away from my village. So, I walked there every day and was lucky to have good teachers and fall in love with mathematics and science. To go to college, I went to Kolkata and did private tutoring to support myself and my studies. When I went back to India for a visit in 2000, I read a newspaper article that among the top high school graduates, at least half of them have no resources to fulfill their dreams. I thought, this is the best way I can pay off my dues from the people who helped me. I started the foundation to give back to my country of origin, and it’s put about 300 students so far through university studying the science, engineering, math, and medicine that India needs.
Q: What were the breakthroughs and who were the researchers who inspired you during your own research career?
A: Satyendra Nath Bose was my mentor and teacher. He got me interested in theoretical physics. And Paul Dirac came to visit him–Dirac is known as the father of the quantum field theory. He started talking about that, and to me it sounded unbelievable, that whether matter or force, they all come from similar types of fields. Meeting Dirac was a dramatic experience. His talk was something I never had thought about: All electrons are exactly the same throughout the universe, and there is a common origin.
Q: What wisdom or advice would you give to the future winners of the Breakthrough of the Year?
A: My humble advice to the potential winners of the award would be for them to realize that science is a very hard taskmaster and demands dedication with unremitting strenuous work for success. Fortunately, the ecstasy of revealing the secrets of nature makes the arduous work feel like fun.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. It originally appeared in the July 29, 2022, issue of Science.