For much of the last 25 years, a huge question hanging over the field of fundamental physics has been that of what judgement results from the LHC would provide about supersymmetry, which underpins the most popular speculative ideas in the subject. These results are now in, and conclusively negative. In principle one could still hope for the HL-LHC (operating in 2026-35) to find superpartners, but there is no serious reason to expect this. Going farther out in the future, there are proposals for an extremely expensive 100km larger version of the LHC, but this is at best decades away, and there again is no serious reason to believe that superpartners exist at the masses such a machine could probe.
The reaction of some parts of the field to this falsification of hopes for supersymmetry has been not at all the abandonment of the idea that one would expect. For example, today brings the bizarre news that failure has been rewarded with a $3 million Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for supergravity. For uncritical media coverage, see for instance here, here, and here.
Some media outlets do better. I first heard about this from Ryan Mandelbaum, who writes here. Ian Sample at the Guardian does note that negative LHC results are “leading many physicists to go off the theory” and quotes one of the awardees as saying:
We’re going through a very tough time… I’m not optimistic. I no longer encourage students to go into theoretical particle physics.
At Nature, the sub-headline is “Three physicists honoured for theory that has been hugely influential — but might not be a good description of reality” and Sabine Hossenfelder is quoted. At her blog, she ends with the following excellent commentary:
Awarding a scientific prize, especially one accompanied by so much publicity, for an idea that has no evidence speaking for it, sends the message that in the foundations of physics contact to observation is no longer relevant. If you want to be successful in my research area, it seems, what matters is that a large number of people follow your footsteps, not that your work is useful to explain natural phenomena. This Special Prize doesn’t only signal to the public that the foundations of physics are no longer part of science, it also discourages people in the field from taking on the hard questions. Congratulations.
In related news, yesterday I watched this video of a recent discussion between Brian Greene and others which, together with a lot of promotional material about string theory, included significant discussion of the implications of the negative LHC results. A summary of what they had to say would be:
- Marcelo Gleiser has for many years been writing about the limits of scientific knowledge, and sees this as one more example.
- Michael Dine has since 2003 been promoting the string theory landscape/multiverse, with the idea that one could do statistical predictions using it. Back then we were told that “it is likely that this leads to a prediction of low energy supersymmetry breaking” (although Dine soon realized this wasn’t working out, see here.) In 2007 Physics Today published his String theory in the era of the Large Hadron Collider (discussed here), which complained about how “weblogs” had it wrong that string theory had no relation to experiment. That piece claimed that
A few years ago, there seemed little hope that string theory could make definitive statements about the physics of the LHC. The development of the landscape has radically altered that situation.
The Large Hadron Collider will either make a spectacular discovery or rule out supersymmetry entirely.
Confronted by Brian with the issue of LHC results, Dine looks rather uncomfortable, but claims that there still is hope for string theory and the landscape, that now big data and machine learning can be applied to the problem (for commentary on this, see here). He doesn’t though expect to see success in his lifetime.
- Andy Strominger doesn’t discuss supersymmetry in particular, but about the larger superstring theory unification idea, tries to make the case that it hasn’t been a failure at all, but a success way beyond what was expected. The argument is basically that the search for a unified string theory was like Columbus’s search for a new sea route to China. He didn’t find it, but found something much more exciting, the New World. In this analogy, instead of finding some tedious reductionist new layer of reality as hoped, string theorists have found some revolutionary new insight about the emergent nature of gravity:
I think that the idea that people were excited about back in 1985 was really a small thing, you know, to kind of complete that table that you put down in the beginning of the spectrum of particles…
We didn’t do that, we didn’t predict new things that were going to be measured at the Large Hadron Collider, but what has happened is so much more exciting than our original vision… we’re getting little hints of a radical new view of the nature of space and time, in which it really just is an approximate concept, emergent from something deeper. That is really, really more exciting, I mean it’s as exciting as quantum mechanics or general relativity, probably even more so.
The lesson Strominger seems to have learned from the failure of the 1985 hopes is that when you’ve lost your bet on one piece of hype, the thing to do is double down, go for twice the hype…
Update: The Breakthrough Prize campaign to explain why supergravity is important despite having no known relation to reality has led to various nonsense making its way to the public, as reporters desperately try to make sense of the misleading information they have been fed. For instance, you can read (maybe after first reading this comment) here that
Witten showed in 1981 that the theory could be used to simplify the proof for general relativity, initiating the integration of the theory into string theory.
You could learn here that
When the theory of supersymmetry was developed in 1973, it solved some key problems in particle physics, such as unifying three forces of nature (electromagnetism, the weak nuclear force, and the strong nuclear force)
Update: On the idea that machine learning will solve the problems of string theory, see this yesterday from the Northeastern press office, which explains that the goal is to “unify string theory with experimental findings”:
Using data science to learn more about the large set of possibilities in string theory could ultimately help scientists better understand how theoretical physics fits into findings from experimental physics. Halverson says one of the ongoing questions in the field is how to unify string theory with experimental findings from particle physics and cosmology…
Update: Physics World has a story about this that emphasizes the sort of criticism I’ve been making here.
As mentioned in the comments, I took a closer look at the citation for the prize. The section on supersymmetry is really outrageous, using “supersymmetry stabilizes the weak scale” as an argument for SUSY, despite the fact that this has been falsified by LHC results.
Update: Jim Baggott writes about this story and post-empirical science here.
Noah Smith here gets the most remarkable aspect of this right. String theory has always had the feature that the strings were not supposed to be visible at accessible energies, so not directly testable. Supersymmetry is quite different: it has always been advertised as a directly testable idea, with superpartners supposed to appear at the electroweak scale and be seen at the latest at the LHC. Giving a huge prize to a theoretical idea that has just been conclusively shown to not work is something both new and outrageous.
Update: Tommaso Dorigo’s take is here, which I’d characterize as basically “any publicity is good publicity, but it’s pretty annoying the cash is going to theorists for failed theories instead of experimentalists”(he does say he wanted to entitle the piece “Billionaire Awards Prizes To Failed Theories”):
[Rant mode on] An exception to the above is, of course, the effect that this not insignificant influx of cash and 23rd-hour recognition has on theoretical physicists. For they seem to be the preferred recipients of the breakthrough prize as of late, not unsurprisingly. Apparently, building detectors and developing new methods to study subnuclear reactions, which are our only way to directly fathom the unknown properties of elementary particles, is not considered enough of a breakthrough by Milner’s jury as it is to concoct elegant, albeit wrong, theories of nature. [Rant mode off]
Going back to the effect on laypersons: this is of course positive. Already the sheer idea that you may earn enough cash to buy a Ferrari and a villa in Malibu beach in one shot by writing smart formulas on a sheet of paper is suggestive, in a world dominated by the equation “is paid very well, so it is important”. But even more important is the echo that he prize – somewhere by now dubbed “the Oscar of Physics” – is having on the media. Whatever works to bring science to the fore is welcome in my book.
I am on holidays in Italy now where in the tv they call it “Oscars in Physics”. I must admit that this is a good name, reflecting the promotion of popularity rather than physical aplicability of the theory.
I thought people in fact did predict things that were going to measured at the LHC, and we haven’t seen anything like any of them…
“big data and machine learning can be applied to the problem “.
The most overhyped ideas of the moment will come save String Theory. How appropriate.
Despite what one often hears, superstring theory has never predicted anything about what the LHC (or any accelerator) would see, for reasons I’ve gone on about here and elsewhere. What does make predictions is supersymmetry, and if you think supersymmetry solves the naturalness problem, these predictions should show up at the LHC. If supersymmetry doesn’t solve the naturalness problem there is no prediction of what energy scale its effects will show up at, and it loses much of its interest.
The accurate statement has always been that superstring theory predicts nothing, but that, if supersymmetry showed up at the LHC, that would be encouraging for the superstring idea, since supersymmetry is part of the theory. Pre-LHC, hopes for connecting superstring theory to the real world hinged on first finding supersymmetry at the LHC, then hoping that the discovered pattern of superpartners and their masses would somehow provide an effective constraint on possible superstring “vacua”. If the constraint was good enough, you could hope to get new predictions out of the superstring.
Post negative results from the LHC, there are no prospects for connecting string theory to the real world (see the recent post about Arkani-Hamed’s talk on the subject). One reaction to this you often hear (from e.g. Witten) is basically “maybe a miracle will happen and we’ll see something unexpected at LIGO or whatever.” Another is Dine’s “let’s keep calculating and maybe a miracle will happen.” Strominger seems to have adopted a different tactic: abandon the sinking ship and declare victory, announcing that it was a crummy ship anyway, that the new one being built will be infinitely superior, and the old ship will live on since some of its wreckage will be incorporated in the new one.
Your characterization of what Andy said (“Strominger seems to have adopted a different tactic: abandon the sinking ship and declare victory, announcing that it was a crummy ship anyway, that the new one being built will be infinitely superior, and the old ship will live on since some of its wreckage will be incorporated in the new one.”) is completely off base. The proverbial “ship” in your analogy seems to refer to the idea that Strominger said is naiive, i.e. the hope that a simple ToE would be found and fundamental physics would be over. Nice way to straw man his argument.
If anything, the “ship” would have to be what string theorists work on: string theory. He is by no means advocating abandoning string theory in favor of anything else. And you insinuating that just reveals how insincere and nitpicky your entire smear campaign has been all along.
Strominger is telling us that string theory has expanded the horizons of physics in a wonderful way, and it is clear that e.g. AdS/CFT is making new strides toward connecting string theory with lots of things closer to the lab bench. Take for example holographic duality in the SYK model. That is a model where one might test things on a lab bench. You’re absolutely missing how theoretical physics works, and Nima is correct in stating that non- or former-physicists are out of their depth.
Where does all this leave particle physics? You quote Ian Sample above as saying: “I no longer encourage students to go into theoretical particle physics.” What comes next? Do we look to the mathematicians or the experimentalists for the next step forward?
I don’t think I’m misrepresenting Strominger’s claims at all. In my analogy the sinking ship is the idea of string theory unification, the idea that string theory will explain the Standard Model and unify it with gravity. Strominger takes the bizarre tack of characterizing such an explanation as not that exciting, just a tedious “reductionist” explanation of some numbers in a table.
Holographic duality in SYK models is likely (among others) the kind of thing Strominger had in mind when he referred to “little hints of a radical new view of the nature of space and time”. Trying to take a “little hint” and use it to make a dramatic claim that one has discovered the New World is about as hypey as hype gets.
As for the personal insults, I strongly suggest you leave them to Lubos.
The quote isn’t Ian Sample’s, it’s from Ferrara, one of the awardees. I don’t want to start a discussion here of my or other people’s favorite idea for where progress may come from, just want to point out that it’s been clear for a long time where progress won’t come from: trying to get a unified theory out of supergravity (with or without strings). Supergravity is an immensely complex and technical subject, and it’s the last thing young theorists should be spending their time learning about, although I fear this award is likely to encourage that.
In the Nature piece, one reads: “A lack of evidence should also not detract from supergravity’s achievements, argues Strominger, because the theory has already been used to solve mysteries about gravity. For instance, general relativity apparently allows particles to have negative masses and energies, in theory. “If that was true, some things wouldn’t fall to Earth when dropped, but fall into space,” says Strominger. That does not happen, but no one could explain why not. Turning supergravity’s mathematical machinery to general relativity, however, enabled physicists to prove that particles cannot have negative masses and energies. “Those results will hold whether or not supergravity actually exists in nature,” says Strominger.”
This is a misrepresentation either of the problem in question, namely, the positive energy theorem in GR, and the history of its solution. (1) Saying that ”For instance, general relativity apparently allows particles to have negative masses and energies, in theory. “If that was true, some things wouldn’t fall to Earth when dropped, but fall into space,” says Strominger” is to ignore years of work from relativists such as Arnowitt, Bondi, Bonnor, Choquet-Bruhat, Deser, Geroch, Misner and Lichnerowicz, only to list a few.
(2) The first proof of the theorem was actually worked out by Schoen and Yau, in “On the proof of the positive mass conjecture in general relativity” (1979) and “Proof of the positive mass theorem. II” (1981), where they employed rather more traditional methods from Geometric Analysis. It’s true that Deser and Teitelboim, and then Grisaru, pointed out the positivity of total energy in isolated systems in SUGRA from the fact that its hamiltonian can be written as sum of squares of the hermitian supercharges, and this inspired Witten to later provide a simplified proof of the theorem using spinor methods in “A new proof of the positive energy theorem” (1981) (all published in Comm. Math. Phys.). But even so, Witten’s proof was in need to some clarification to be completely rigorous, concerning particularly some analytical properties of Dirac operators, provided by Parker and Taubes, see here:
Moreover, spinor methods have been applied to General Relativity at least from 1960 by Roger Penrose, see e.g.:
I don’t think Penrose needed SUGRA for this.
There are two ways to interpret LHC results (140 fb^-1, !!). First, there are no more discoveries to be made; 2012 saw the final chapter in a story that began with the ancients and featured Mendeleev and Rutherford and Feynman and Weinberg and so many others. It’s all over, pack it up. Tell the smart kids to go into cancer research or finance.
Or second, the experimentalists don’t know how to look properly. We are pretty good at looking where we are told. Top, higgs decays were precisely modeled and the analyses beautifully crafted to look for exactly that. In this new era we continue to search for new physics by doing what we know: resonances, missing momenta, excess photons, electrons, muons or heavy quarks. Almost all LHC searches would look perfectly reasonable to someone from 50 years ago. But nature is not bound by our limitations.
Look, new physics is going to pop up. It might be something more complicated than a Ting-like bump on a nice flat background. We are collectively moving beyond basic techniques, and it is a really exciting time.
For those interested in the exact relation of Witten’s proof to supergravity, see section IV of his paper
which explains this in detail (and is consistent with what “Angry Andy” writes above).
Your quote from the Dine article (“A few years ago…”) contains the words “absurd misinformation” which don’t seem to belong there.
Many years ago we received a letter of recommendation of recommendation form Sidney Coleman. I remember only two short sentences in the letter:
I am uninterested in gravity. I am super-uninterested in super-gravity.
I believe that a few years later Sidney did not retain this purity of soul.
If there was any evidence that supergravity has anything to do with reality, Ferrara, Freedman and van Nieuwenhuizen would be getting a Nobel prize instead of the Breakthrough one. The goal of the latter is to recognize important theoretical discoveries in physics, which do not necessarily need to make contact with experiments. You can criticize the purpose of such a prize, but the fact that discovery of supergravity was a milestone towards better understanding of QFTs is rather indisputable. Among other things, to this day N=8 SUGRA remains the only four-dimensional theory of gravity that has a shot at being renormalizable. To me (as someone working on numerical GR) this fact is completely remarkable!
Given that the field is in a conceptual turmoil, given that the breakthrough has been promised for decades, and given that everyone seems to have given up hope for the next few years now that the LHC results are in, I expect a revolutionary breakthrough to happen soon! 😉
I thought the LHC was supposed to confirm the mechanism of EWSB, solve the hierarchy problem, uncover a new fundamental symmetry of nature and discover the LSP/dark matter. That was a “small” thing?
The problem is that if you’re going to award a huge prize for theory not backed by experiment, you have a big problem of deciding what is good theory and what is bad theory. Given my interests, I’ve nothing against handing out huge prizes in mathematical physics, but if you do this you need to face up to some difficult problems of evaluation, and be careful to explain to the press that what you are rewarding is not success at explaining nature, but something different.
Note that the last two Breakthrough Prizes in physics went to solid state theory work that is connected to experiment, and to the WMAP experiment. The Breakthrough Prize is not promoted as a prize for work that can’t be tested, quite the opposite. It is extremely misleading to the public to tell them that the construction of a supergravity theory and the WMAP experiment are the same sort of thing.
Have you read the citation for the supergravity prize? It explicitly claims that the significance of this work is based on the fact that supersymmetry
“offers solutions to some of those perplexing puzzles in the Standard Model, including a mechanism explaining the tiny particle masses, and a natural candidate for dark matter, which – like the hypothesized super-bosons – is massive but invisible.”
This is just completely outrageous: the conjecture that SUSY “[explains] the tiny particle masses” (i.e. stabilizes the weak scale with respect to the Planck scale) always was highly problematic, and the work at the LHC has shown this is not true. What’s going on here is much worse than giving a prize to an untested or untestable idea, it is explicitly giving a huge prize for an idea, based on an argument for its significance which experiment has just falsified. This is really bad for both the public credibility of the subject, as well as for the ongoing problem of getting it to face up to its failures.
Actually I think what Strominger was referring to as a “small thing” was the 1985 hope to explain the spectrum of elementary particles and compute their masses and interaction strengths. By his measurement scale, the things you mention would not be small, but microscopic…
Dear Lowell Brown,
I was told by Bryce deWitt that I was the subject of that letter of Sidney’s. There was just one more line…
Why is no one mentioning the simultaneous, and much simpler, construction of supergravity by Deser and Zumino? As students at the time we found much to admire from both results!
Philip Ball in his piece at Scientific American, writes
“One potentially controversial aspect of the decision is that the supergravity picture was also formulated independently by Bruno Zumino, a pioneer of supersymmetry, and Stanley Deser, now at Brandeis University, who also published their work in 1976—initiating disputes over priority. Zumino died in 2014, but the omission of Deser from the award seems puzzling, Duff says, given that there is no restriction on the number of recipients.”
Looking at a recent talk about the history of supergravity by Van Nieuwenhuizen, I’m guessing he might point out that his paper with Ferrara and Freedman was submitted March 29, 1976, the Deser/Zumino paper April 28.
For Deser’s view of the story of the discovery of supergravity, see
I think S. Deser’s final comment in the above-cited paper beautifully summarizes the situation; too bad it wasn’t cited by the nominating committee…
“In conclusion, I quote Chou-En-Lai’s reply to a query as to the effects of the then 200 year-old French revolution: “it’s too early to tell”: SUGRA is a beautiful set of theories, very much broken in the real world, yet with many useful and unexpected lessons in theory-building past and future.”
Witten’s 1981 proof (or rather: detailed proof sketch; the analytic parts were filled in by Parker and Taubes in 1982) of the positive mass/energy theorem (PMT) is a very important result in mathematical general relativity and differential geometry. It was extremely influential. Witten’s spinor proof has nothing to do with supergravity (or superanything), though. In fact, Witten added at the end of his article a section that begins with the following sentence: “In this section a few speculative remarks will be made about the not altogether clear relation between the previous argument and supergravity.” If you cut that section from the article, you won’t miss anything. The proof itself does not involve supergravity at all.
That the spinor proof was found only in 1981, two years after Schoen and Yau had given a different proof, is a historical accident. It could easily have been found in the mid-1960s, long before the discovery of supergravity: As inspiration, you just need Lichnerowicz’ proof that certain compact spin manifolds without boundary do not admit a Riemannian metric with positive scalar curvature (1963); and the Arnowitt/Deser/Misner (ADM) definition of the mass/energy of an asymptotically flat spacetime (1960–1962). Knowing these things, you will feel a strong urge to figure out whether the main formula in Lichnerowicz’ proof has a generalisation to certain compact spin manifolds with nonempty boundary. If you are moderately clever (Witten was certainly overqualified in that respect), you compute the boundary term in the case where the boundary is a large sphere in an asymptotically flat spacetime, notice that this term involves the ADM mass/energy, and thus get the strategy for the spinor proof of the PMT. You ask your local analysis expert why the PDE you obviously must solve has a solution, and then you’re done.
The Breakthrough Prize announcement claims that supergravity “can be used to give a rather simple proof” of the PMT. This is like saying that apples can be used to give a rather simple theory of gravitation. Newton might have had an important idea for his theory while watching apples falling from a tree. But without apples, he would probably have had the same idea a week later, sitting on a privy, contemplating other falling objects. In an analogous sense, Witten most likely didn’t need supergravity as an inspiration to come up with his PMT proof.
At Nature, “In 2013, for example, Stephen Hawking won for his theory — also still untested experimentally — that black holes give off radiation.”
What do you think about this “justification” for supergravity ?
The problem with the Breakthrough Prize justification of an award for supergravity as an idea about unification is not that it’s untestable, but that it has been tested and failed the tests. This isn’t a compelling, hard to test idea, it’s an idea that now has a lot of evidence that it’s wrong.
Also relevant is the distinction Sabine Hossenfelder makes here between different sorts of untestable ideas:
Considering who decides these prizes, former recipients just made theirs look less unjustified by comparison.
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Speaking of prizes and levels of hype, yesterday the ICTP Dirac medal was awarded to Mukhanov, Starobinsky and Sunyaev, for inflation and CMB:
Looking at the article, I was pleasantly surprised by the lack of hype and multiple comments about the agreement between theory and observations. But perhaps most surprisingly, while inflation is said to explain the uniformity and flatness of the Universe, there is absolutely no mention of the “magnetic monopole problem” – a rarely sober take on inflationary cosmology.
My take, just posted to Prospect Magazine’s science blog. It’s pretty much as you’d expect. https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/science-and-technology/prize-for-speculation-goes-to-how-foundational-physics-went-down-a-post-empirical-dead-end-science-prize
Regarding the matter, I heard an interview from the national italian radio broadcast (radiorai) to Ferrara, in which he says, among other things, that “likely” SUSY will be found in the next ten years, draws a comparison between the search for SUSY and the discovery of the Higgs Boson, and criticizes LQG.
This is the web address of the interview (in italian, sorry)
Like much of theoretical physics, prizes from billionaires are sociological phenomena.
Does this prize impede or enhance the execution of experiments with substantial discovery potential? That matters the most. Could go either way.
By and large, theoretical high energy physicists don’t have any idea how to accurately estimate discovery potential.
Meanwhile, the US neutrino budget is in turmoil, with ripples in $ that dwarf the chump change of the Milner prize.
Thank you for the link, Luca Coluzzi.
I’m not a native Italian speaker, but if I understood Ferrari’s speech around the 14th minute of that interview correctly, Ferrari criticism of LQG (which the interviewer attributed to Carlo Rovelli) is, ironically, that it’s not predictive, while SUGRA and strings are, since they predict the existence of new particles!
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Dear Jackiw Teitelboim,
There are other ironies here: First of all, the LQG quantization of GR extends directly to give a quantization of supergravity, at least at N=1, including a treatment of d=11 supergravity. So supergravity and LQG are compatible, there is no conflict between them.
Second, LQG evolved out of supergravity, as the key result that the hamiltonian formulation is polynomial when expressed in terms of the chiral connection arose in an attempt by Amitaba Sen to formulate a lattice regularization of supergravity.
(For this reason the relation between supergravity and Witten’s proof of positive energy is particularly transparent in Ashtekar variables.) There is a small literature on supergravity in LQG for those interested.
And yes, LQG permits a variety of couplings to matter and Yang-Mills fields (modulo some constraints.)
Yes, Jackiw Teitelboim,
that is what Ferrara said.
Tommaso Dorigo is right. The reason for not giving prizes to experiment is “there too damn many of you”. The whole system of giving prizes for science is still in thrall to the absurd romantic notion of the lone genius (at most two or three).
It’s not so much that there are too many of you, it’s that these days you don’t have enough of a star system. The goal of the Breakthrough Prize people is to promote fundamental physics by creating and publicizing “stars”. If you would just pick one or two people in your collaboration and identify them as the “stars”, you too could get more prizes.
” If you would just pick one or two people in your collaboration and identify them as the “stars”, you too could get more prizes.”
I don’t think the error is on the collaborations side. Actually, I think the opposite, collaborations should work to diminish the “stars” they already have (spokespersons) since their personal scientific contributions are 99% of the cases disproportional to the attention and prizes (like Nobel) they get.
This winner takes all attitude and celebrity culture is the real problem here, and this BS prize makes it a million times worse. Moreover, be it or not what Milner cares about, it does reinforce the “romantic notion of the lone genius ” on the public’s imaginary.
If you add to all of this the absurd idea that these prizes are now going for failed theories, nothing at all is positive to me (unlike Tommaso thinks). It’s made even worse by the fact they try to add confusion by rewarding real scientific discoveries in the mix.
It’s a complete fiasco.
Nobel prize recognizes ideas that have succeeded. It may not be a bad idea
to reward by some mechanism those ideas that have had enormous
influence, but may not turn out to be correct. This will be a different
issue how to “measure” influence. By almost any measure, idea of
Supergravity has made major impact.
What personally attracted me to science when I was young was that it was about the search for a truth independent of what was popular or not popular. Having a huge prize for an idea being popular, even if it is not true, is an attempt to change this conventional understanding of what science is, and I think that should be resisted.
This is also peculiar in another way: often the reason for instituting a new prize is to reward work that is not already getting rewarded. Having a popular idea is what gets you all of the conventional rewards of academic life, so why add another reward for what is already rewarded?
How about a prize for “The Theoretical Idea that has wasted more months of graduate students’ time than any other over the last decade(s)”?
That could apply to both experimentalist and theoretician graduate students, and perhaps be expanded to include post-docs as well.
If you’re going to award prizes for ideas that are wrong, then why stop with only those ideas which are now known to be wrong, but which were once thought to have some possibility of being correct? Why not award a prize for ideas that were known to be wrong at the very start? I’m thinking of somebody like Jan Hendrik Schoen, who inspired a great deal of experimental work around the world with his fantastic ideas, all of which were deliberate fabrications. Who are we to distinguish among the various flavors of wrong?
The sad truth is that if you are going to award prizes in this area, then you have to award prizes for ideas that are wrong, because there aren’t any others.
Setting aside issues of whether or not it is right, is supergravity really even all that brilliant of an idea? Supersymmetry was a great idea, but after that it’s kind of obvious that you should look for a theory of gravity with supersymmetry. A technical feat to be sure, but worthy of a big prize?
Although it’s not nearly as lucrative, is the Dirac Medal considered more prestigious than the Breakthrough Prize?
Just as an example, Sen, Strominger and Veneziano won the 2014 Medal for “crucial contributions to the origin, development and further understanding of string theory.” Actually, it appears many of the medalists won for theoretical work that is entirely speculative and arguably empirically falsified, to the extent that any idea like String Theory or SUSY can be falsified.
Handing out awards for brilliant theoretical work that either leads to falsified predictions, or evades any attempt at empirical validation through infinite malleability, does not appear to be unprecedented. Seemingly the practice is generating something of a monetary arms race, and that’s the novelty.
Yes, academia and science has always had a large number of prizes (the number is increasing) of all sorts, a bunch of them for theory and math/physics. There actually are three different “Dirac Medals” of this kind. The same supergravity group was awarded the ICTP version back in 1993, and has gotten a bunch of other similar ones together (Dannie Heineman Prize, Ettore Majorana Medal).
There are far more of these prizes than there are truly important successful ideas, so of necessity they end up rewarding lesser achievements and ones that not everyone would agree on. The difference is in the money and publicity campaign behind the Breakthrough Prize. When they won the ICTP Dirac Medal the three got an inconsequential amount of money and a few articles in places like Physics Today. For the Breakthrough Prize, it’s articles in the Guardian and \$1 million together with a big PR campaign (including recruiting journalist pre-announcement to write many positive articles timed to appear at the announcement).
The question of whether this money and PR campaign will be successful is still up in the air. I noticed that many important media outlets decided not to cover this (e.g., nothing in the New York Times). In the future, which will carry the most positive reputational weight, a Dirac Medal or a Breakthrough Prize? The jury is still out, but I think unfortunately at the moment the Milner/Zuckerberg millions are speaking the loudest.
OT, but thank you, Peter, for resizing the “only the details are missing” picture to make the site design more uniform.