String theory may not be doing so well in the popular press or among physicists, but at least a fabulously wealthy Russian investor is a fan. Yuri Milner recently deposited $3 million each in the bank accounts of 5 string theorists (basically the theorists at the IAS and Ashoke Sen) and four others, choosing them himself as recipients of the “Fundamental Physics Prize”. It seems he intends to keep doing this in the future, making “Fundamental Physics” a very lucrative business to be in.
Update: Now that I’m awake, I noticed what is odd about this prize, after realizing that the winners are kind of a list of the most prominent people in the field who haven’t won a Nobel Prize. What this does is turn the Nobel Prize on its head; you get it for doing work that is untestable or wrong, but that has a high profile:
Unlike the Nobel in physics, the Fundamental Physics Prize can be awarded to scientists whose ideas have not yet been verified by experiments, which often occurs decades later. Sometimes a radical new idea “really deserves recognition right away because it expands our understanding of at least what is possible,” Mr. Milner said.
Peter Higgs’s ideas from 50 years ago have finally been verified by experiment, and as a result, if he can hang in there, he may share (probably 1/3) a Nobel Prize of nearly
$1.5 million $1.2 million (reduced recently from $1.5 million). The Fundamental Physics Prize winners get about six 7.5 times more for ideas that have gotten a lot of hype, but no experimental test (or at least not enough to satisfy the Nobel Committee of physicists). Even better, you get the prize for your over-hyped ideas even if experiment does show them to be wrong:
Dr. Arkani-Hamed, for example, has worked on theories about the origin of the Higgs boson, the particle recently discovered at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, and about how that collider could discover new dimensions. None of his theories have been proven yet. He said several were “under strain” because of the new data.
One wonders about the implications of this for the future of theoretical physics: why should young theorists work on unpopular ideas and/or try hard to find testable ones? That will get you only
$500K $400K, and there’s $3 million to be had if you work instead on a speculative and untestable idea that you see on TV.
Update: The Fundamental Physics Prize Foundation has a website here. The board consists of Yuri Milner and Steven Weinberg (although it is specified that only Milner chose the prize recipients). The goal of the prize is to “bring long overdue recognition” to its recipients and “more freedom and opportunity to pursue even greater future accomplishments”. It’s not quite clear why the particle physics professors at the Institute for Advanced Study (all of whom got a prize) have been suffering from a lack of freedom and opportunity to purse their research.
Update: For a profile of Yuri Milner by Michael Wolff at Wired, see here.
Update: Adrian Cho at Science reports this story as Russian Gazillionaire Lobs Money at Theoretical Physicists:
David Lee Roth, the sometimes singer for the legendary rock band Van Halen, supposedly once remarked: “Money can’t buy you happiness, but it can buy you a yacht big enough to pull up right alongside it.” If so, then nine theoretical physicists can now afford to join the next-to-happiness flotilla, thanks to the generosity of Russian billionaire Yuri Milner.
Update: Another article about Yuri Milner is here. It seems that he has had a dramatic effect on the venture capital business in Silicon Valley, with his tactics there somewhat analogous to his tactics in setting up this prize. Where Jim Simons has put a lot of effort into making carefully targeted investments of different sizes in math/physics research, Milner has just dumped large sums of Russian money indiscriminately on the main figures in the “hot” area of the subject with no-strings-attached, which is somewhat the same as his investment philosophy in Silicon Valley. He had a lot of success there with investments in things like Facebook, but it’s still to be seen whether this was a bubble that will burst. One big difference with physics though is that in the business world you’re ultimately judged on whether you make money or not. In physics you’re supposed to be judged on whether your experimental predictions turn out, but his investments in physics are structured to evade exposure to that problem.
Update: There’s an article about Sen getting the prize here. Note the headline: this is now referred to as “Physics highest honour”.
Update: Another article about this, from Luca Mazzucato, Fundamental Physics Prize: A Russian money shot for string theory which explains:
Every physics student’s wet dream when they join grad school is to ascend one day to the Olympus of Nobel Laureates, up there in the clouds with Einstein, Feynman and the like. And, of course, Barack Obama and the Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. But most grad students who score the highest points, like the proverbial fly to honey, get inevitably attracted to string theory – that is, the ones who ditch Goldman Sachs job interview. And their Nobel Prize aspirations will never have a chance of materializing – just like that dream house in the Hamptons. That’s because string theory, a.k.a. The Theory of Everything, despite its appalling beauty and tremendous fascination, is not going to come close to the real world any time soon. And since the Nobel Prize may only be awarded to those scientific predictions that pass the merciless test of experiment, that brightest students’ wet dream – alas, among many others – stands no chance of being fulfilled.
This was the status of string theory up until a week ago, when Yuri Milner – Russian tycoon, Facebook shareholder, and former theoretical physicist himself – dropped the bomb: nine overnight wire transfers to as many physicists’ bank accounts, that instantly turned the reclusive scientists into millionaires.
Update: There’s an interview at the Times of India with Sen about the prize, which includes the question and answer
How does the discovery of the Higgs boson impact your research?
It’s one of the great discoveries of our time. Its discovery has been eagerly awaited since the time Peter Higgs, the British theoretical physicist, proposed the Higgs boson 50 years ago. It tells us that standard model and string theory are correct and that I and every other theoretical physicist who has been working under the assumption that it exists are not on the wrong path after all.
This echoes David Gross and Juan Maldacena’s similar claims at Strings 2012 that evidence for the SM is evidence for string theory.