Out of 2,000 entries, Ryan Chester, 18, of North Royalton, OH, has won the Breakthrough Junior Challenge for his video, “Some Cool Ways to Understand the Special Theory of Relativity and What It Means About Time,” which he filmed, directed and edited himself. This is the contest's first year. Chester received the award at a ceremony Sunday night broadcast on the National Geographic Channel.
Chester is passionate about physics and its applications, but his first motivation was the $250,000 scholarship prize. “Now I can go to college wherever I want!" he said. "A lot of great colleges were out of my price range. I’m just now starting the process, and I can apply to USC, NYU, Stanford—places with strong film and science programs.”
In the challenge, Chester sought to answer questions popular culture takes for granted. He wanted it to be entertaining but educational. “A lot of people have heard of [special relativity] but don’t understand it,” Chester said. In his video, he elaborates: “Time dilation has been in science TV shows and movies like ‘Interstellar’ so often that I've just accepted it without understanding why it was true.”
Chester believes his video won not only because of its accessible explanation of Special Relativity—Einstein's concept that explains the relationship between space and time—but also because of its informality and humor. It features him alternately strolling through his backyard, falling into a bowl of popcorn and flying away in a 1990s-CGI spaceship to illustrate the concepts of inertial frames of reference and temporal distortion. His advice to 2016’s contestants: inject personality into their videos. He believes the judges and other entrants will appreciate videos with style. Chester said his physics teacher Richard Nestoff inspired the relaxed, semi-comic mien of his video.
“I came up with the idea for the video on my own, but I thought of Mr. Nestoff while I was talking. He makes difficult concepts easy to understand in regular language. I sort of know how he feels now: I was second-guessing myself the whole time, and this was just for one video! He has to teach and explain things to us for a whole year!”
Nestoff will receive an award of $50,000, and North Royalton High School, which Chester attends, will receive a $100,000 science lab from the nonprofit Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.
The Breakthrough Prize awards several $3 million prizes to scientists in three categories: fundamental physics, life sciences and mathematics. Several well-known entrepreneur couples collaborated on founding the prize in 2012—2014 for the Math prize: Sergey Brin and Anne Wojcicki, Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, Yuri and Julia Milner and Jack Ma and Cathy Zhang. Previous laureates choose the winners from among the nominations. Khan Academy took part in sponsoring the Breakthrough Junior Challenge.
The Junior Challenge, begun this year, aims to recognize “that the biggest breakthroughs start with an insight, a new way of looking at things,” according to Sal Khan. Entrants submit a short video explaining a scientific discovery, which are evaluated and scored by other entrants in the first round then by panels of professionals in the second and third rounds. Chester was chosen from among 15 finalists.
The winners of both the Prize and the Junior Challenge are invited to the Breakthrough Prize Gala, which Priscilla Chan and Wired describe as the most glamorous science event in the world. At this year’s gala, the French Laundry catered dinner, Hollywood stars presented the awards and Pharrell Williams performed his new single “Freedom.”
The most difficult part for Chester? “Not telling my family. I found out two weeks ago, but it wasn’t announced till the awards ceremony. I had to fly out without telling them and rehearse my acceptance speech. It was hard, but the whole experience was a dream come true.”
With his college scholarship, Chester plans to study film and a scientific discipline, hoping one day to make feature films about science and emulate Bill Nye. He may be well on his way. "Special Relativity" isn't his first film. His YouTube channel boasts 17 videos, including other entrances into short film contests, though none address scientific concepts.