Fundamental Physics Prize

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: Geoff Brumfiel at Nature has a story about this here. Ian Sample covers the story for the Guardian 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. This entry was posted in Favorite Old Posts, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 149 Responses to Fundamental Physics Prize 1. Anonyrat says: ” Mr. Milner personally selected the inaugural group, but future recipients of the Fundamental Physics Prize, to be awarded annually, will be decided by previous winners. …. According to the rules, the prize in future years may be split among multiple winners, and a researcher will be able to win more than once. Mr. Milner also announced that there would be a$100,000 prize to honor promising young researchers.

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.
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This gives the current recipients a lot more clout – have any prior group of physicists had the power to confer instant millionairedom (or 100Kdom) on a fellow physicist? – and it might encourage clique-ishness among physicists.

2. Clayton Pickering says:

How does one go about submitting one’s research to the “Fundamental Physics Prize?”

3. MathPhys says:

Wow!!!!!!!!!!!

Having just started reading How the Hippies Saved Physics a few days ago, it occurs to me that this prize would be much more awesome if it were called the “Fundamental Fysiks” prize.

5. q says:

I wonder if Michael Faraday would qualify for the price, shortly after his claim, that “magnetism can produce electricity”, which claim as we all know – has been ridiculed by the top “mainstream physicists” of his time, but BEFORE electromagnetic induction discovery?
My impression is, that he wouldn’t qualify both BEFORE and AFTER the discovery. Taking into account present, 21 century standards his discovery would be called for sure: “highly dangerous speculation”, that has nothing in common with real, experimentally confirmed physics, like String Theory.

6. Martin says:

Just a minor correction, Peter: the Nobel Prize has recently been lowered to around $1.2 million. So 1/3 of that amount would be$ 400k and the ratio of the “payouts” for proven vs. highly speculative ideas is even worse.

Btw, I very much enjoy your site – I attended several talks at Strings 2012 in Munich (without registration as there was no verification procedure at the entrance to the lecture hall) and it was very interesting to read your comments on the talks and the overall coverage here on your blog. I was also able to attend the Nobel Laureate Meeting 2012 in Lindau at Lake Constance and talk to Laureate David Gross. I can assure you he is still totally convinced of Supersymmetry and String Theory describing Reality.

Even being among so many Nobel Laureates and approx. 550 international young researchers from various fields of Physics the very same week of the Higgs discovery announcement (there was live broadcast of the press conference and a panel discussion with CERN scientists at the meeting), your site was actually my main source of information on everything Higgs-related. You were the first to report the news and they have been very reliable. Thank you very much for this website!

7. lun says:

Some considerations:

i) The guy is a crook. He is did not make his money by being a “venture capitalist” (you need lots of money to become one), but by being the CEO of a crooked bank in the 90s, a bank that made money by ripping off Russian pensioners and the like. Unlike Khodorkovsky&co Milner even managed to stay friends with Putin after his involvement in that. This means he is not just a crook, but a crook^2.
The facebook response is hilarious: A few months ago physicists were all enthusiastic about occupy Wall Street. Now you are salivating that a guy who makes the worst Wall Street CEO look like Robin Hood is giving physicists 0.0001% of what he took.

ii) In the last few years there were all kinds of enthusiastic debates about whether modern theoretical physics, with its lack of experimental contact and mathematical rigor, was really science.
It seems the debate is settled: What defines science is the ability to impress a very rich guy with limited specialist training. Throughout history, this was a great indication of pseudo-science, but I guess homeopathy, astrology, Kabbalah, reincarnation, perpetual motion machines and mediums were underrated: Each has its legion of very rich supporters who swore up and down it was true.

iii) As the prize also extends to maths, it is revealing that two people who _unquestionably_ changed mathematics and are still alive and economically far from wealthy, Alexaner Grothendieck and Grigori Perelman, did not get anything (Grigori Perelman lives on his mother’s 60 Euro pension, which by the way is 60 Euro because of the stuff Milner&co did in the 90s). Of course both are crazy, but the fact that their “PR dept” is no match of that of the winners also plays a role. It would also be amusing to just give them the money as a surprise, because they refused such prizes before.

8. piscator says:

I have to say this seems like a terrible idea. Three million dollars (or even a hundred thousand dollars) as personal cash is a lot, and giving the decision rights on it to a small set of big shots seems to embed cronyism into the subject. Furthermore, history shows that the big names of one generation have not in general been good at picking the winners of the next.

9. Umesh says:

I really cannot understand your problem with the winners of this generous gesture from a wealthy individual. Just reading the names would make it clear that everyone in that group, from the great Prof. Witten to Prof. Sen have contributed much much more to the understanding of not only strings, but quantum field theory and so on which are ‘fundamental’ in every sense of the word.

10. Peter Woit says:

Thanks Martin!

I’ve updated the post with the more accurate Nobel information. I don’t doubt Gross is still convinced about SUSY, although I wonder if this will still be true after he has to pay off bets he has made about this at some point in the next few years.

11. prizes says:

Anyone can endow any prize for whatever reason. A large part of the reason may be to bring reflected glory on Milner himself. (Had you ever heard of Milner till now?) Complain if you wish. As Liberace would say “I cried all the way to the bank.” Yes the stated criteria for the prize do encourage the wrong kind of attitude. Yes it is bad. (BTW the Templeton Prize is intentionally more than the Nobel Prize. It says so.) Then again, why should a bright young PhD want to pursue “honest” physics? (In this context physics means theoretical HEP.) It’s already more lucrative to enter the financial industry, fresh diploma and glowing testimonials in hand, and become a thief.

12. Peter Woit says:

Umesh,

I should make clear that those getting the money have significant accomplishments, some of them spectacularly so (e.g. Witten). My comments in the posting should make clear though what I see of concern here.

The prestige of the Nobel prize does not only stem from the fact that it is very old and very big (although I am not aware of any prize that beats Nobel on both age and size), but also from the fact that the Nobel committees have almost never given the prize to somebody unworthy. Well, not in the sciences anyway. I doubt that the world will care much about a prize that a Russian robber baron sets up explicitly to award people who don’t live up to the high criteria of the Nobel prize.

14. Peter Woit says:

lun,

The Michael Wolff article says nothing about Milner making his money as “CEO of a crooked bank in the 90s”. If you can document that, please do. Otherwise, don’t use anonymity here to slander someone.

15. Marty says:

I guess the Higgs theorists not eligible? The prize site does say “Should recognize major achievements, with special attention to recent developments.” How “recent” is recent?

The boson’s zero-spin has not been determined so to say on this site that “ideas from 50 years ago have finally been verified by experiment” appears aggressive.

Seems like Higgs, Englert, Guralnik, Hagen, Kibble (and some experimentalists) could have been included…unless this is focused solely on “new” physics or young physicists.
Those geezers are certainly not young I guess.

Anyway, very interesting prize.

16. Peter Woit says:

Marty,

Guth’s work on inflation was from 1980, 32 years ago. Higgs was 1964, 48 years. So, I guess the cut-off for “recent” is somewhere between 32 and 48 years ago.

17. Anonyrat says:

Quote: “Milner, 49, is not an oligarch. He never wangled an oil company or iron mine from the Kremlin at knockdown prices or formed a private army to protect his family. But he has been close to two of the richest and toughest of them. In the 1990s he worked for Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who acquired Yukos Oil Co. and later gained fame as Russian business’ most famous martyr to then-President Vladimir Putin. (Khodorkovsky received a second long jail sentence while Google was courting Groupon last December.) Milner’s financial partner now is Usmanov, who served six years himself in an Uzbek prison on a conviction that was later overturned. Usmanov then built a Russian metals empire worth an estimated $17.7 billion while simultaneously heading an arm of OAO Gazprom, the state-owned natural gas monopoly. Read more: Close connections – The Deal Pipeline http://www.thedeal.com/magazine/ID/038812/2011/close-connections.php#ixzz22DKKkJNL 18. lun says: Pardon my unnecessary cynicism, Milner obviously made billions in 90s Russia by honest hard work and inventiveness. In particular, he was the deputy CEO of investment in Menatep, I will leave the anonymous writer of Wikipedia to do the slandering. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Menatep 19. Quantum Computer Scientist says: Alexei Kitaev didn’t start doing his best work (all connected with quantum computing) until the late 1990s. So “recent” can certainly mean in the last 15 years. 20. JollyJoker says: Are there any recipients that are not doing fairly prominent work right now? Looking at the list I assumed the idea is to support ongoing work. 21. Trulo says: From the NYT article: The \$3 million has already appeared in Dr. Guth’s bank account, one that had had a balance of \$200. “Suddenly, it said, \$3,000,200,” he said. “The bank charged a \$12 wire transfer fee, but that was easily affordable.” I wonder what it feels like, waking up one morning and suddenly finding three million in your bank account. It goes without saying that this is all unmitigated madness… 22. Peter Woit says: Trulo, When I read that I thought that perhaps I missed my chance at the prize. Various e-mails in recent months have promised me millions if I just send them my bank account information, but I deleted those without paying close attention to whether they came from a Russian billionaire. 23. MathPhys says: My concern is how this sudden influx of personal wealth will affect the research of those who will get it. Next year’s (or next time’s) winners will be decided by this year’s winners, so some of us have a good idea who these will be. But all of these accomplished people are already great professors with prestigious positions that already offers them very good salaries and plenty of freedom. They are already very well-recognized and rewarded. I also wonder about the effect of power that this year’s winners will have on prospective candidates. They had better be really nice to them from now on. 24. Peter Woit says: MathPhys, Used to be that giving a talk in Sweden was a cherished opportunity to put oneself before people who would decide whether you get the$400K. Now that $3 million is on the line, the IAS should have little trouble recruiting prominent speakers. 25. MathPhys says: Peter, I think you have a pretty good idea who the next winners will be. They don’t need to give talks at IAS. 26. David Nataf says: I don’t see how this is different from the Nobel Prize, Shaw Prize, Templeton Prize, etc. It was inevitable that somebody would set up an alternative prize scheme to the problematic Nobel prize, and indeed many groups have done so. Peter, think back to the reverence in your words when you discussed how the CMS and Atlas collaborations should get the nobel prize, and how the rules should be amended. You wrote of prize-giving as if it were something objective. It’s not. Within popular media, the Nobel has been lionized as the greatest achievement in the sciences, which is ridiculous. See Lise Meitner, Rosalind Franklin, John Bahcall, Fritz Zwicky (discovered dark matter), et cetera. Alternative prizes have been set up, and there will be many more. 27. Peter Woit says: David Nataf, I have no problem in general with rich people setting up prizes for scientists, including to compete with, supplement or even duplicate the Nobel. The Nobel was just discussed in this context because it’s the best example of a long-lived prize that has kept very high scientific standards in its awards. You won’t see me saying anything critical about the Kavli Prize, the Shaw Prize, or a long list of others. I do think there’s a problem though with the Templeton Prize (rewarding those who bring religion into science) and this prize (which to some extent rewards work on over-hyped failed ideas). 28. kdl says: This new prize from nowhere is quite odd. The proper approach to make such a prize or award creditable and long term commitment should be a foundation or trust setup in the name of Milner or his choice with certain amount of allocated fund set aside. Many wealthy people who support fundamental research in general would follow such approach either setup a Prize, an Institution or both. Like Shaw, Kavli, Simons, and Lazaridis did in the past, just name a few. The impression is that the award is given by Mr. Milner personally, from his bank wired to the recipients’ bank accounts based on the various reports link. Very unprofessional done on the surface. Although 27 million is quite large amount of money, to spend it in such manner, it’s more like a cheap shot for instant fame of the giver. No guarantee of long term availability. 29. Tmark48 says: Thomas Larsson is spot on. The value of the Nobel Prize is not just the money, but the acknowledgement from your peers that you have done something worthy in science. This kind of scientific recognition CANNOT be bought. So what if some crook russian guy donates milions of$ to “theoretical physicists” that haven’t furthered their field. Their peers will continue to have a mediocre opinion of them, money or no money.

30. Hack says:

Wow, the theoretical physics field is crazy, now a bunch of ‘top’ physicists in string theory and other areas with untestable theories get 3 million dollars each for ostensibly over hyping their discoveries? It seems you should be a better PR guy than physicist now a days and you’ll be more successful. Plus as several people have stated earlier in posts, this just reinforces the old guard. They get to choose who gets next years prizes? Wow.

As an aside, how can physicists who champion untestable, unproven ideas past any reasonable time frame remain so revered? Seriously, doesn’t that indicate that they are lacking intelligence in certain areas? Say like common sense? I’m not trying to be insulting or inflammatory, I am asking a serious question.

31. Allan Rosenberg says:

Peter,

Anyone who has a serious shot at winning the FuPP could easily find a job at a quant fund that would pay more than \$3 million a year, so I wouldn’t worry too much about billionaires perverting science–Witten isn’t in it primarily for the cash. If a billionaire wants to back string theory research, let him–it makes it that much easier for funding agencies to move their support to other research programs. If it will make you feel better, I know a couple of billionaires, and I’ll ask them if they’re interested in awarding some prizes in the application of representation theory to multiverse studies. 8) 32. Anonyrat says: I think this blog, among others, has championed the idea that it is bad for physics if everyone simply plays follow the leader. Well, now the leaders get to decide what is interesting not just by sheer intellectual prowess but also by large money prizes. And this helps the “follow the leader” problem just how??????? 33. MathPhys says: You really think that this year’s winners will continue to do research as if nothing has happened? And given their financial power over the rest of their colleagues, you think their relationships will stay as natural? If someone had an incredible amount of money and wanted to sabbotage a subject, you think there is a more effective way? Mr Milner could have started a new, well-funded institute dedicated to fundamental research in physics, along the lines of the Perimeter Institute, but this time in a different continent. He could have subsidized the research of a very large number of young, talented scientists (including many in Russia who live hand to mouth). But he decided to take the easy way and splash incredible amounts of cash on those who need it least. 34. Bernhard says: Allan Rosenberg, one cannot compare someone´s year salary with a prize that is deposited at once in your bank account. No idea if and how much taxes are payed, but still, this is a LOT of money even for Ed Witten. But this prize is really a joke as its contenders were chosen by Milner himself, who is nobody in condition to judge scientific merit, no matter how a genius he is as an investor. He should have arranged a serious and as neutral as possible scientific committee, then this would be a total different story. Now the problem for the future is obvious. Witten, Maldacena, Arkani-Hamed et al are of course people of the highest scientific standard, but means also this will become a string theory prize (or a “hype” prize, who knows). I´m sure they are all aware this prize means absolutely NOTHING from a scientific point of view, but again, they are also aware they are world leaders in the field and since the money is really good, it is really hard to say no… 35. piscator says: Hack: in some cases – clearly Witten, Maldacena, Sen and to some extent Seiberg – the main achievements are in mathematical physics. Such results are clearly `true’ and as such have an intrinsic importance independent of whether or not the world at sufficiently short distance scales is made up of vibrating strings. So the answer to your question is that the results are eternal and impressive, and are justly respected. Sure, anyone can set up a prize for whatever reason. However the more I think about it the more I think that this is just terrible for the subject. There is the sheer arbitrariness of the selection – for example awarding inflationary prizes to Linde and Guth but not Mukhanov. There is a lack of regard for what really makes the best physics – Arkani-Hamed gets a prize much more valuable than the one Feynman, Gell-Man, tHooft, Weinberg etc got? As several have pointed out, it makes the problem of follow-my-leader physics worse. As it is there are too many young people whose work is based on what is fashionable at Princeton, and the prospect of a 100k/3M dollar carrot will just make this worse. The commenter who suggested this is a secret plan to destroy particle theory may be on the money… 36. fp says: I’m interested to hear how young people in the field feel about this. I can only speak for myself, a graduate student, but reading this news (and the news last week about the Simons Foundation grants) makes me less excited about doing research, not more. The merits of research should be decided gradually over time by the consensus of the scientific community. A billionaire giving awards to his favorite people feels arbitrary and, ironically, it cheapens the whole endeavor. And it feels immoral to give millions of dollars to IAS professors who already have everything they need. A far better way to tap into unused potential would be to donate the money to support physics education in underprivileged areas. Find the creative, hard working kids who’s talents are going unused. Again, I’d be interested to hear whether this announcement has a motivating or chilling effect on other young researchers. 37. David Nataf says: Well, this is probably just the beginning of prize proliferation. If some of you are unhappy about this, you may be suffocating very soon. 38. Peter Woit says: Tmark48, I’m afraid that at least in the US, money does talk, quite loudly, especially for university administrations. The \$27 million Mr. Milner has just spent and the millions more to come will buy him and the people he has given it to a lot of influence.

One aspect of this influence will be that you will see very little public criticism of this prize coming from academics. My impression is that most particle theorists who have done well enough to have some sort of permanent career are convinced that only the minor matter of experiments being too difficult is what keeps their work from being rewarded with a Nobel prize. They’re not going to jeopardize their shot at \$3 million by shooting their mouths off in public… 39. Chris Herzog says: I hope that the winners spend the prize money on their research. Heck, if Arkani-Hamed, Seiberg, Maldacena and Witten pool their winnings, they ought to be able to endow a few new positions at the IAS. Maybe they can even reduce their tax burden with such an approach. 40. Trulo says: On second thoughts, funny how nobody seems to have rejected the prize. It seems Perelman is one of a kind. On the other hand, what on Earth is Weinberg doing in the Board together with this guy (appropriately described above as a “Russian robber baron”). I strongly suspect that if I invited SW to give a talk at my Department he would politely decline… could it be true that money can do the trick? 41. Peter Woit says: Trulo, We don’t actually know if anyone turned down the prize. If they did, I doubt this fact would have been publicly announced. Maybe there were originally supposed to be 10 prizes. Hard to think though of someone who would naturally fit in with the other 9, but would turn down \$3 million.

If you were to call up Weinberg to tell him you needed help spending \$20-30 million and you were sending your private jet to pick him up, you might have better luck getting his attention. 42. anonymous says: I had predicted Kitaev would win a Nobel prize if someone ever makes a qubit out of a non-abelian anyon, which might happen within a reasonable time scale, maybe a couple decades. Now that the Nobel committee will see he doesn’t need any more money, I may have to cancel the prediction. Congratulations in any case! This prize, like his previous MacArthur Fellowship, is very well deserved. For the rest of you worried about cronyism, just chill out. There’s no precedent. We should give this year’s winners the benefit of the doubt that they’ll do the right thing. 43. Alp says: I think this is welcome news. Nobel was more and more starting to become a self congratulation by the liberal establishment — influenced more by politics than merit. Even the president got it with hardly anything credible. If anything, it is more commendable when people choose to support ideas with their own money than with others’. I doubt any of the negative commenters would turn that reward down if they were chosen as one of the recipients. 44. Peter Woit says: Alp, I freely admit that I, for one, would not turn down \$3 million if some eccentric Russian gazillionaire wanted to deposit it in my bank account. Eccentric Russian gazillionaires should be free to do what every they want with their gazillions, to the extent that they are legally obtained gazillions.

Spare us though the political commentary about “liberals”, and I’ll ruthlessly delete any further comments that try and enter into the usual tedious political discussion that you want to bring up. One wonderful thing about the Physics Nobel, as well as the arguments about string theory and related issues is that they have nothing at all to do with this.

45. Henry Bolden says:

This has got to be disastrously bad for the future of theoretical physics. Now we’ve got a clique of cronies, the initial prize winners, who get to decide which of their friends are going to be rich. The scheme might be sufficient to corrupt even Witten which I would have thought to be impossible.

The prize winners are certainly a talented bunch and well worthy of accolades, pats on the back and fancy plaques for their office walls, maybe even a marching band with 70 tubas, but giving them a whole lot of cash seems pointless. The IAS permanent members are well paid and already have the freedom to do whatever research they like.

What’s next? Maybe Tony Soprano will sponsor a big prize in arithmetic algebraic geometry? That will get the subject going. Or else.

46. So is Kontsevich a physicist now? There’s a big difference between theoretical physicists who work on string theory and mathematicians who work on string theory. One of them can claim proof of their work.

47. anonymous says:

Kontsevich’s work isn’t just string theory. His deformation theory stuff is pretty cool. The phase space formulation of quantum mechanics, for which deformation theory provides some foundation, happens to be my personal favorite. The Kontsevich quantization formula sets up some fun generalizations. Sure, it has difficulties making the transition into relativity, but maybe this prize will encourage some brilliant graduate students to revisit this line of attack for, say, quantum gravity?

I’m really surprised by all the negativity in these comments. This prize should be an inspiration for promising young theorists to take some risks in their work (like the idea that Avi Loeb has been promoting) without having to worry about the volatility of public funding. They can use the money to attract new students, pass the funds along to experimental research that may corroborate or rule out their theories, or donate it to a charity.

And I’ll reiterate that you all shouldn’t assume the worst in people. These winners are not likely going to be corrupt and resort to cronyism. These guys already got their prize, so they’re bound to pass around the torch to different branches of physics. Jeez.