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.

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149 Responses to Fundamental Physics Prize

  1. Robert Rehbock says:

    No strings were attached these awards, right?
    These recipients are all top scientists. They get to choose what to do with the money. I am confident that they will use it more wisely than many persons who possess and use their money.

  2. Henry Bolden says:

    Here’s a way that the Yuri Milner lottery winners, at least the IAS members among them, can show solidarity with the math/physics community. They can donate half their winnings to the IAS and that will be matched by the Simons/Simonyi $100 Million Challenge Grant:

  3. Giotis says:

    Finally justice was served…

    We were tired to see mediocre physicists winning the Nobel prize just for being lucky (a characteristic example is Penzias and Wilson but there are more) or for some unimportant shallow discoveries while the true giants of theoretical physics and their revolutionary frontier research remained largely unappreciated by the general public.

    The Milner’s prize certainly fills this gap.

  4. Bernhard says:

    “Hard to think though of someone who would naturally fit in with the other 9, but would turn down \$3 million.”

    Since this is just a high-profile prize, what about Lisa Randall? Well, she will end up winning anyway, now that is up to the stringy guys to choose the next winners.

  5. Bernhard says:

    Sorry, I misread, I don’t think Lisa would (will) turn down 3 million, my comment is restricted to “someone who would naturally fit in with the other 9”.

  6. M says:

    I propose a prize to Ereditato for superluminal neutrinos!

    Speaking seriously, while awarding a prize for inflation is reasonable, giving a prize for speculations not confirmed by LHC is less reasonable.

  7. Anonyrat says:

    In reply to Giotis, physics is about the world, and not about theoretical achievements, and not about IQ. Penzias and Wilson accomplished more for physics than a lot of IAS physicists – they actually discovered something.

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  9. Thingumbob says:

    Modest suggestion. Prize should be renamed physics of the fundament. Thank you.

  10. gurplesnork says:

    Hawking and Penrose would seem to be good candidates for this prize.

  11. Tmark48 says:

    I think the correct term for this prize should be “Milner’s Prize for speculative thinking”. The general public will have a distorted (if it isn’t already the case) of what theoretical physicists do. This is what happens when a generation of theoretical physicists the caliber of Feynman and Wheeler (among others) passed away with no replacement in sight. Theoretical physics reduced to speculative thinking has nothing to do with physics.
    I wouldn’t have awarded the prize to anybody. Maybe put it on the backburner for Alan Guth waiting for experimental confirmation of cosmic inflation. As for the others no.

  12. Tmark48 says:

    Robert Rehbock wrote : “No strings were attached these awards, right?”

    I’d say ONLY strings were attached to this prize. ^_^

  13. P says:

    Peter, Tmark, and other people with similar sentiments,

    I’m a bit surprised by the anti-string talk regarding this award. You often distinguish, Peter, between the use of strings for attempts at unification (on which we disagree), but acknowledge that strings have made very important contributions to our understanding of mathematics and quantum field theory. I’m confused, then, by the attitude in

    “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”

    for example. First, it doesn’t really matter how string theory is doing in the popular press, because we physicists tell the non-expert public what they should think, anyways. Second, the issue that some physicists take with strings is (or should be, if one takes issue with anything) entirely related to unification, not the formal work which sheds light on other subjects. How does one take issue with this award, then, given that all of the recipients who work on string theory have used it for important not-unification-related purposes?

    This is a serious question. Even if we disagree on unification, it’s important to delineate between the different types of work done by string theorists. In my opinion, the animosity in the comments is unfair to direct towards these men.

    And, if anyone thinks these men aren’t deserving, please name who you think has done more significant work! I’m curious to hear ideas.


  14. Peter Woit says:


    You’re completely ignoring every argument I made here, so it’s hard to see much point in repeating any of them. Again though, the basic point is that this is the largest award ever given to scientists, and it is being given explicitly for work that can’t be experimentally tested, or has been tested and failed. The nine people given this award are a mixed bag, with very different accomplishments, but I think it’s clear that if you gathered together a reasonable group of the most respected physicists in the world, and asked them to put together a list of the nine most important people in the subject, you wouldn’t get six out of nine with a connection to string theory.

    As for the animus about string theory, look at the previous posting. Last week, Maldacena and Witten were featured at a press conference promoting string theory in Munich. Did they acknowledge that string unification is not working out? No, instead they said all is fine, the field is making great progress, and made the absurd claim that string unification is testable because quantum mechanics and the SM are testable, and that’s what the theory is based on. This kind of nonsense has been going on for 20 years, it has been really effective in misleading people about the true situation of string theory and making sure that string theorists get rewarded far beyond their due. If you want to know where the animus is coming from, that’s it.

  15. MathPhys says:

    And, if anyone thinks these men aren’t deserving, please name who you think has done more significant work! I’m curious to hear ideas.

    The collective powerhouse of bright young people with no tenure, or with heavy teaching workloads, would greatly benefit from a fraction of 3 million dollars each, to allow them the opportunity to think in peace and to get some research done.

    The great men of IAS and IHES have all the job security and the opportunity that they need.

  16. ex says:

    We just needed this prize, now that with some experimental data the community was starting to heal from decades of deviant thinking, of demagogic push for untenable arguments, of trivial or useless model building, of ignorance for the number of phenomenological open problems, of bad influence on students, of aggressive lobbying in career selection..

    I guess that this prize is exactly what it is announced to be – a money prize for those who will never win a nobel physics prize. Let’s hope they get their boat, and leave public recognition, personal satisfaction and happiness to Higgs.

  17. ex says:

    And it would be really nice to hear what Weinberg has to say about the selection and the fact that he is funnily on the Board, while not participating in it.

    Weinberg has never been a critic of string theory, I guess for fear of being isolated by the community.

  18. David Derbes says:

    I want to disagree a little bit with the claim that the winners have no experimental evidence to back up their ideas. That may be true of the string folks, but it seems to me not true with respect to Alan Guth. Guth’s work on inflation (in my opinion) has been confirmed by the size of the anisotropies measured by the Wilkinson MAP and by the harmonics predicted by Wayne Hu et al. I’m sorry that Alan Guth hasn’t yet won a Nobel, and this Milner prize is nice consolation, well deserved. (For the record I had a undergraduate advanced mechanics class from Guth in 1973, during the all too short time he was at Princeton, and thought him one of the best teachers I’d ever seen. Forty years later that’s still true.)

  19. anon says:

    It’s interesting to compare the behavior of Simons and Milner. Simons gives out lots of small grants to young researchers in math — e.g. his 5000 travel grants are smaller than anything the NSF will give out, and are very useful for postocs. Although he has invested far more, and far more usefully, than Milner in science, he has (arguably) achieved less publicity. For example, Milner’s prize was a prominent story in the NYT, whereas Simons had to take out an ad there to announce the Simons Fellows winners.

    Milner’s investment will probably not change science in any way: Witten, Kontsevich, etc. will continue doing the same great research but with a fatter bank balance (unless they decide themselves to donate some of this money to other, more needy, researchers). Simons has given many young researchers the time and money to pursue their research.

    That said, I’m also surprised by the negative comments about the prize winners. If the title of the prize was changed to “mathematical and fundamental physics” no-one could possibly object to awarding it to Witten, Seiberg, Konstevich, etc. all of whom have made incredible contributions. All of their contributions are still great if you subtract anything to do with string theory.

  20. Bob Jones says:

    “there’s \$3 million to be had if you work instead on a speculative and untestable idea that you see on TV.”

    “I think the correct term for this prize should be ‘Milner’s Prize for speculative thinking’.”

    I hope you guys aren’t referring to the IAS physicists when you talk about “speculative” ideas. One of the things I admire about these physicists is that so much of their work is not speculative. As others have pointed out, much of their work is mathematical in nature and doesn’t postulate anything about the real word. If you look at the citations on the website for the prize, you’ll see that it’s recognizing the laureates for a lot of perfectly legitimate things like

    “the exploration of new mathematical structures in gauge theory scattering amplitudes”

    “insights into a range of problems from high temperature nuclear matter to high temperature superconductors”

    “exact analysis of supersymmetric quantum field theories”

    “non perturbative duality symmetries”

    I wouldn’t say that any of these ideas are “speculative”, and it makes no sense to say that they’re “untestable”. All of the IAS scientists have made outstanding contributions to science, and honestly, I think the sort of work they do is far more valuable than most of the testable phenomenology that other people work on. If theoretical physicists were just about coming up with testable hypotheses, it would be nothing more than a bunch of speculative and poorly motivated models, almost all of them wrong.

  21. Peter Woit says:

    Bob Jones,

    There’s no denying these 9 people have made significant contributions to science. These include however some of the most over-hyped work in the subject (among your examples, insights into “high temperature nuclear matter” is an example, going through all the things you left out of your list would provide many more). They have also benefited greatly from every reward academia has to offer, to some degree because of the huge hype level. Given this, the question is whether an order of magnitude jump in the rewards reaped for this sort of work is a healthy thing or not…

  22. ex says:

    Bob Jones – I think you have it in front of your eyes.

    Higgs – Anderson – Weinberg – Glashow – Feynman – Wilson – Pontecorvo – Occhialini – Dirac – Majorana – Fermi – Bohr – Heisenberg – Einstein – Oort – Chandrasekar – Maxwell – Newton – Galileo .. a long and partial list.. All people leaving milestones in the comprehension of some physical phenomenon. Not technical analyses, but understanding of the dynamics, with a world of new phenomena coming out.

    Please speculate like they did, but soon get reconnected like them to experiment, not to some unreachable very high energy frontier, which inevitably becomes obscure and demagogic. In this respect also inflation is at the boundary of being physics – we will never test it – we will never see the inflaton and its potential, with its 10^-20 small slope. Instead – we saw the higgs, we see the W, neutrino oscillations, Fermi interactions and so on.

  23. Sammy says:

    It is better to be 25, unknown and broke than 65, famous and worth $3m.

  24. Peter Woit says:

    I should also point out that I’m all in favor of work on speculative ideas, well aware that good ideas are often untestable for a long time if ever, and very much of the opinion that progress in physics needs more mathematics not less. The problem is the hype level surrounding string theory, which has brought huge attention to a very narrow range of ideas, coupled with a vigorous campaign to deny obvious failures. Hep-th has been full for nearly twenty years with papers on “non perturbative duality symmetries”, leading to some results that are interesting, but often very much oversold, and no acknowledgement of the massive failure of the research program still used in the marketing of this work.

    There’s a universe of fascinating and poorly understood topics on the borders of fundamental physics and mathematics, with very little of it getting any attention, and with likely career suicide awaiting anyone who tries to work on many of these topics. Witten himself is responsible for a wide range of such ideas and he fully deserves the recognition and a huge prize, but the industry that developed around one aspect of his work doesn’t. Young physicists need to be provided with financial support to try something new, not with millions of dollars dangled in front of them to encourage them to work in the same narrow, overhyped area.

  25. Tmark48 says:

    @ Bob Jones :

    I think a physics prize should reward physics accomplishments. Theoretical physicists have in past been awarded the Nobel Prize, so they arent’ in any way penalised with respect to the rest of the physics community.

    To be clear, I think we need theoretical physicists in all branches of physics (quantum optics, high energy physics, astronomy, astrophysics, condensed matter physics and so on…) and we also need a small number of theoretical physicists working on what I would call “highly speculative and non testable models” of reality.
    But this second group has to know that while the community at large will recognise their accomplishments (if they have any), they don’t deserve a physics prize.
    Maybe a maths prize if the work they’ve done warrants it, but certainly not a physics prize. Nobody will say that Penrose or Hawking haven’t done important discoveries in theoretical physics 50 years ago. Do I think they deserve the Nobel Prize in physics ? Not by a long shot. Unless someone comes up with an experiment that confirms that black holes actually evaporate.

  26. Raznol says:

    @Peter Woit: You say it’s career suicide to work on these other topics.. how sure are you of this? Do you know of individuals who have done good work in less popular areas whose careers were ruined? I personally think it’s more that people are afraid to try riskier routes, and moreover it’s easier to travel down the paved road than to branch out into the wilderness, so the chance of success is lower and that deters people.
    I’d prefer to stay anonymous here, but I’ve worked in pretty nonconventional areas (of math) and I didn’t get much resistance. I don’t think it hurt me careerwise. It always seemed to me that if you did good stuff in a different way, you’d get respected… just that most people were either unable to, or more commonly, not inclined to really try to.

  27. Bright Matter says:

    Yuri Milner approach to encourage fundamental physics is wrong because it fundamentally distorts the motivation and incentive for doing such research.

    Fundamental physics is NOT a Silicon Valley tech startup. Where venture capitalists dump big money on big ideas to fund risky initiatives. Hoping for a big return from the marketplace.

    Yuri Milner thinks by paying huge financial rewards for hot ideas, scientific discoveries will happen. No. Scientific discoveries happen because of two things: the ingenuity and dedication of the researchers, and the experiments to prove the theories. Paying for ideas, or even theories, without proof, is NOT science.

    Researchers are already well-paid. Their reward is success of theories and recognitions. I can tell you none of them entered this most difficult field because of the money.

  28. Peter Woit says:


    I should have made clear that I was talking about careers in physics departments. Math departments are a very different story, with a different culture, and a better ratio between the number of smart people needing jobs and the number of jobs.

    These days in physics, the job market for anyone doing anything involving sophisticated mathematics is dismal. If you apply for a post-doc or tenure-track job and are working on a short list of the hot topics pursued at the IAS (basically amplitudes, higher-spin gauge theory, or exact results in N=2 4d gauge theory), you have a slim chance of finding a job. Go through Witten’s papers and pick any one of a large number of interesting topics that deserves to be followed up, then submit a job application saying that’s what you want to work on. I think you’ll then understand the “career suicide” remark.

  29. Sammy says:

    What is truly dismal is that PhD physicists cannot find jobs in high schools.

  30. Bob Jones says:


    Fair enough. Do you think there’s anyone else who deserves $3 million, or are you saying the whole idea of the prize is misguided?

  31. Bob Jones says:


    Your list might seem like a long one, but when you think about how many theoretical physicists there are, you realize that it’s actually quite sort. Most theories of physics turn out to be wrong. My point was that if everyone in physics were doing phenomenological work, the subject would be more speculative, not less.

  32. Bob Jones says:


    “But this second group has to know that while the community at large will recognise their accomplishments (if they have any), they don’t deserve a physics prize. Maybe a maths prize if the work they’ve done warrants it, but certainly not a physics prize.”

    You may disagree with the choices that Milner made, but he can do whatever he wants with his money. If he wants to give a prize to a bunch of mathematical physicists, he’s free to do it. If he wants to call it a physics prize, he’s free to do that too.

    “Do I think they deserve the Nobel Prize in physics ? Not by a long shot. Unless someone comes up with an experiment that confirms that black holes actually evaporate.”

    Should Hawking get the Nobel prize? Again, the prize committee can do whatever it wants. It doesn’t matter what we think. Does Hawking’s work deserve to be recognized as some of the most important physics work of the last 50 years? Absolutely. It makes no difference if we can’t observe Hawking radiation because, like all of the other results I mentioned, Hawking radiation is a formal consequence of well tested theories of physics. It’s a statement about what our theories predict, and such results are interesting and important even if they don’t describe the real world.

  33. Peter Woit says:

    Bob Jones,

    I think the whole idea of giving multi-million dollar prizes to the most prominent people in math and/or physics is misguided. There’s no reason it should help with their work, and academia is already enough of a star system as it is. The sizable number of current $1 million-scale prizes (Nobel, Kavli, MacArthur, Crafoord, Kyoto, Shaw, Abel, Millenium, maybe others) seems more than enough, with the people who get them not exactly languishing in obscurity before they get the prize, or doing better work after getting it. Going to \$3 million seems unnecessary, other than to emphasize how wealthy the financier putting up the money is. He should stick to using his \$100 million house for this purpose.

  34. @David Derbes: I also took that classical mechanics class from Alan Guth in 1973 … it was fabulous! He was the best physics lecturer I ever had aside from Sidney Coleman.

    The criticism that the recipients already have all the freedom they need applies to any high profile prize doesn’t it? Prize winners usually have very successful careers before they win their prizes.

    One can always point to other worthy candidates, but these nine are very great scientists, and I’m sure they’ll take seriously the responsibility of choosing the next winner. If someone is to chair the selection committee, Alan would be a good choice because he is so organized and conscientious.

  35. Tmark48 says:

    @ Bob Jones :

    Milner is abosolutely free to do as he pleases with his money. But I am free to criticise those that receive this “physics” prize. Now as a matter of principle I’m not opposed to awarding monetary prizes to theoretical physicists. But and this is were we have differing opinions, you think that any speculative idea is worthy of a prize, I on the other hand do not.

    As for Hawking lets get real. Black hole radiation has been derived within a semi-classical model. And for good reason, no quantum theory of gravity exists at all. So what is in principle a quantum gravity effect has been derived by neglecting the important part. So we don’t know wether this effet is real or not. General Relativity assumes space time is a 4 dimensional differentiable manifold. How can we assume that space at the planck scale is continuos ? It’s a pretty ardous proposition with nothing to back it up.

  36. q says:

    Yuri Milner should give his prize to CMS and ATLAS people. As far as I know, there are 3000+ members in each team, so 27M divided by 6000 it is still a lot of money, all heavily working experimentalists absolutely deserve.

  37. Bernhard says:

    @ John Preskill:

    “take seriously the responsibility of choosing the next winner. ”

    This is perhaps true, but although they are all, undeniably, excellent scientists, they are still humans and still in favor of their programs , which is only natural (after all one good reason they pursue their line of work is because they believe in it). You cannot choose 6 string theorists to decide “who did a great speculative job in physics” and expect the winners will not lean strongly to string theory. Physics has tons of models of physics in particle theory too, the vast majority of them (probably all) just as wrong as string theory. Again, this was not a prize for ideas, if it was, only the scientific community was in position to decide which ideas deserved a prize. Milner excluded from the equation the only thing that could make a scientific prize to have any credibility, the scientists.

  38. ex says:

    Bob Jones,
    yes my list is short, exactly the ones I may think deserve any prize for “fundamental” physics.

    On your point, I don;t know you should probably clarify what you mean by speculative, and whether it has negative meaning.

    When Majorana was suggesting to Fermi new nuclear particles, neutrons, instead of a sum of proton+electron, do you think this was a useful or a useless speculation? It was really tied to ongoing experiments.

    And when he was introducing neutral fermions being their own antiparticles, do you think this was useless speculation? To him, that was really a pure speculation, but in the same year (’37) it was recognized as possibly giving rise to neutrinoless double beta decay (measurable today).

    The lesson I get is that you should speculate, but not escape in exotic constructions with weak or no motivation, which for its sustainment ends up needing mediatic overhype on the partial results, military occupation of academy, elimination of critic voices, etc – this reminds me of cultural fascism. It happens to societies, it happened in science.

    I was discussing with collegues: the only sad question is why Weinberg had to follow them. He had other choices. He was a respected physicist with an impressive record of physics… I just compare with Anderson or Glashow – who did keep their mind clear.

  39. Anna says:

    First of all, it is worth noting that it is his money to do with as he pleases and it would be wonderful if more seriously wealthy people used their funds this way. Most of the complaints sound a bit like sour grapes. All contributions and rewards for research should be applauded – these are after all credible and serious researchers, not cranks.

    Secondly, established funding mechanisms (government money decided by scientific peer review) are pretty good at excluding the patently crazy, but poor at picking out the high risk high return research which would largely be driven by very young researchers – decided as it is by what is effectively a gerontocracy. And so funding largely goes to the safe established middle. ‘Big science’ is making it harder for young people to do anything except join ‘established’ teams – it is no longer possible to come up with a revolutionary theory while sitting in a Swiss patent office and government funding is risk averse further pushing the safe middle option. Maybe the venture capital model is exactly the stimulus needed at this point in time for some radical thinking in the field.

    Finally, there is space for speculative fundamental research – it is how great leaps forward occur, and whatever the success of the LHC in confirming the Higgs, no-one can deny that such a rethinking is required – unless Nature really is perverse. A null result is as important as a positive when that work has a feasible basis, is intellectually demanding and makes significant contributions to other fields. And whether a researcher picks a correct model or not is often a matter of luck and serendipity.

    (P.S. I am not a string theorist.)

  40. @ Bernhard: I concede that the prize might have more credibility if the initial winners had been chosen by a panel of scientists instead of by Yuri Milner. Regarding future winners, I’m inclined to give the selection committee the benefit of the doubt. I know all this year’s recipients except for Kontsevich … not only are they extraordinarily deep thinkers, they are also pretty broad scientists with knowledge of and appreciation for physics outside of their specialties. Of course everyone has prejudices, but they will do their best to be fair.

  41. anonymous says:

    Nobody will say that Penrose or Hawking haven’t done important discoveries in theoretical physics 50 years ago. Do I think they deserve the Nobel Prize in physics ? Not by a long shot. Unless someone comes up with an experiment that confirms that black holes actually evaporate.”

    I had predicted Penrose could share a Nobel prize with Schechtman and maybe one other person for their work on quasicrystals. When the Nobel committee award the prize to Schechtman alone this last year by taking the chemistry angle, they missed their opportunity. Oh well.

    As for Hawking, the Nobel committee could lump him together with some of the UBC team or similar for a shared prize. These kinds of “fun” Nobel prizes aren’t without precedent.

  42. Peter Shor says:

    Even in math departments, working in unpopular areas can be close to career suicide. I know at least one case of a good mathematician whose career nearly went down the tubes because he had a very good thesis in a very unpopular area (he managed to find a job, do some great work in a better known area after his thesis, and is doing very well now). However, in math, a much broader range of areas will get you a good job.

  43. anonII says:

    @piscator “Furthermore, history shows that the big names of one generation have not in general been good at picking the winners of the next.”

    Good point, I just read how Heisenberg told Hagen and Guralnik the Higgs Theory was “junk”. Clearly he couldn’t pick ’em.

    Also, physics prizes in general will get a lot more attention in the next couple years as this prize announces its second set of winners and the Nobel Prize has to deal with how to handle the 5 remaining Higgs theorists (E-H-G-H-K).

  44. Truth says:

    A wonderful prize and a wonderful selection of truly worthy winners…deep, creative, imaginative thinkers. They have taught us a lot about deep properties of general relativity and quantum mechanics in strange and interesting ways. Some of their ideas are definitely correct, such as quantum computing, others have been rather well tested, such as inflation, others are surely connected to our world in one way or another, such as gauge/gravity duality, other ideas generate beautiful connections between physics and mathematics, such as formal string theory, and other ideas are just rather speculative, such as large extra dimensions.

    “Imagination is more important than knowledge” Albert Einstein.

    The only odd thing in my mind is that he decided to give \$27 million to 9 physicists. Why not \$27 million to 100 physicists, or so? Share the love…Wonderful nonetheless.

  45. Anonyrat says:

    The real worry is not about these 9 recipients, it is about the effect of this prize on every other physicist.

  46. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks to all for the unusually high quality of comments here. Some even are from people (John Preskill and Peter Shor) of high accomplishment who seem to me viable candidates to join the “next-to-happiness flotilla” if the committee does as good a job as one would expect.

    Perhaps there are other such here among those who prefer to stay anonymous. I’m guessing for example “Truth” might be in a category where this would work out if the numbers were expanded as he (or she?) suggests. In any case, good luck to all of us in this new world we’ve entered where, as one venture capitalist described the situation to me “financiers are handing out \$3 million checks to scientists like so much candy.” As our economy evolves into one dominated by the activities of a sizable group of multi-billionaires, often with math/physics background, they can’t spend it all on yachts, mansions and jets, so surely even more will come our way.

  47. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    Interesting thing about the Nobel: Almost no one talks about the money. As for the Milner Prize, money is all anyone is talking about.

  48. Michael Kovarik says:

    I don’t believe that this is going to negatively impact the physics community. It won’t combat the fact that the American job prospects for those who research quantum gravity has never been worse and it is given to such an exclusive club that it won’t propel any research in any direction (no one does physics research for exorbitant prize monies). Perhaps if Yuri had split that \$5 million into 1,000 micro-grants, it might be a problem.

  49. Bob Jones says:


    When I say a theory is speculative, I mean there’s a good chance it’s wrong. For example, I would say that most of the theories predicting BSM physics at the LHC are highly speculative. On the other hand, the sort of formal string theory that people at the IAS are doing is not speculative at all because it’s not the sort of thing that requires testing. Such ideas are known to be correct because they have been proven mathematically (at least by physicists’ standards).

    I would prefer to see more well motivated mathematical work, rather than millions of badly motivated predictions of LHC physics.

  50. Joydip Ghosh says:

    Alexei Kitaev — For the theoretical idea of implementing robust quantum memories and fault-tolerant quantum computation using topological quantum phases with anyons and unpaired Majorana modes.

    @ John Preskill: Happy to see Kitaev as one of the laureates. Since you are perhaps the best person to talk about his research, I have a question for you: It’s not clear to me from the above if he got that for topological quantum computation (with non-abelian anyons) or topological quantum error correction (with surface code).

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