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Northwestern’s Emmy Murphy Wins Prestigious ‘New Horizons’ Prize

The mathematician will be honored at a November ceremony considered the ‘Oscars of Science’

Emmy Murphy

Northwestern University mathematician Emmy Murphy has been named one of six awardees of the 2020 New Horizons Prize.

Northwestern University mathematician Emmy Murphy has been named one of six awardees of the 2020 New Horizons Prize, one of several honors to be presented at this year’s “Oscars of Science.” The gala, produced by technology and innovation icons, celebrates top achievements in physics, life sciences and mathematics.

A total of $21.6 million in prizes will be awarded during the Nov. 3 globally televised event in Silicon Valley. The Breakthrough Prize Foundation and its founding sponsors – entrepreneurs Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, Ma Huateng, Yuri and Julia Milner, and Anne Wojcicki – announced the winners on Sept. 5.

The range of discovery explored by this year’s nominees is vast. Breakthrough Prize laureates probed the galaxies to capture the first image of a black hole; imagined gravity at the quantum level; laid the foundation for non-opioid analgesics to extinguish chronic pain; established the biological basis of how much we eat and weigh; and discovered common mechanisms underlying neurodegenerative disorders, including early-onset dementia.

Six New Horizons Prizes were awarded to 12 scholars recognizing early career achievements in physics and mathematics. As part of the prize, Murphy, an associate professor of mathematics at Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, will receive $100,000. In 2017, Northwestern’s Aaron Naber, the Kenneth F. Burgess Professor of Mathematics, was one of four recipients of the New Horizons award.

“I’m thrilled to be recognized for my research and I’ve had the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time. “I’m also very passionate — even obsessive, at times — about what I do as a mathematician,” says Murphy. “I also think that hard work and good luck are both important and one can’t replace the other.”

Murphy’s work explores a field of math known as topology, the study of geometric properties and relationships. In geometric topology there are spaces referred to as “manifolds,” which act as physical spaces that are extremely fluid, meaning objects can expand, distort, stretch and shrink. Geometric space in this context is the notion of “geometry” imposed upon a manifold.

She offers an analogy: an everyday tarp can take any shape, but a tarp together with scaffolding makes a tent, which is an actual space with a rigid shape.

“My work studies different ways of putting geometries into manifolds,” says Murphy. “I  especially focus on the borderline phenomena between the ‘flexibility’ of manifolds and the ‘rigidity’ of geometric spaces.

The type of geometries she studies — symplectic and contact — relates closely to many kinds of mathematical physics: from classical dynamics and geometric optics, to quantum mechanics and string theory, though Murphy’s work is considered abstract.

Murphy will be honored alongside other Breakthrough Prize winners at the eighth annual Breakthrough Prize gala awards ceremony on Nov. 3 at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. The event will be broadcast live by National Geographic. Each year, the program has a theme; this year’s topic,  “Seeing the Invisible,” was inspired by the Event Horizon Telescope collaboration, which created the first image of a black hole, as well as by the broader power of science and mathematics to reveal hidden, uncharted worlds.

Since its inception in 2012, the Breakthrough Prize has awarded more than $200 million to honor “paradigm-shifting research” in the fields of fundamental physics, life sciences and mathematics. Selection committees composed of previous Breakthrough Prize laureates choose the winners.

More information about the Breakthrough Prizes is available at

By Roger Anderson