New Milner Prizes

The New York Times is reporting that tomorrow Yuri Milner will be announcing the award of a new set of prizes for fundamental physics work, this time including some experimentalists as recipients. The awards are

• $3 million for the experimental discovery of the Higgs at CERN. This will be split into three parts:$1 million to Lynn Evans for his work building the machines, $1 million to ATLAS current and ex-spokepersons Fabiola Gianotti and Peter Jenni, and$1 million to CMS current and ex-spokepersons Joe Incandela, Michel Della Negra and Tejinder Virdee. I’m suspicious that the NYT has missed CMS ex-spokesperson Guido Tonelli, who was on the list I heard about earlier today from a source at CERN.
• $3 million to Stephen Hawking for his work on black holes. • Three “New Horizons” prizes of$100,000 each to younger theorists working on string theory and SUSY: Niklas Beisert, Davide Gaiotto and Zohar Komargodski.
• Two “Physics Frontiers” prizes of $300,000 each to string theorists Alexander Polyakov and Joe Polchinski, with a third$300,000 prize going to a group of condensed matter physicists (Charles Kane, Laurens Molenkamp and Shoucheng Zhang) who work on “topological insulators” among other subjects.

Polyakov, Polchinski and the group of condensed matter physicists are now the contenders for the $3 million 2013 Fundamental Physics Prize which the NYT story says will be awarded “by a vote of the judges on the morning of March 20 at CERN and announced in a ceremony that evening.” The special award to the LHC physicists should help make up for the problem that no Nobel prize may end up going to the Higgs discovery because too many people were involved. Milner has the advantage of not being bound by long tradition and arguably out of date rules the way the Nobel Committee is. On the theory side though, these awards make it clear that the Fundamental Physics Prize story is likely to be heavily dominated by awards from string theorists to string theorists for work on string theory. Besides Hawking, all the recipients have some connection to string theory, with the condensed matter physicists working on a hot topic which many string theorists see as the future of their subject. For more about the recent history of the string theory/condensed matter connection, see this article from last year in Nature which includes this, which refers to certain books published in 2006: “It’s hard to say whether the interest in condensed-matter applications is a direct response to those books because that’s really a psychological question,” says Joseph Polchinski, a string theorist at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara. “But certainly string theorists started to long for some connection to reality.” Update: The NYT article has been revised to include Tonelli. Update: The press release with more details is here. There’s a story at the Guardian here. CERN has more here, including interviews with the LHC winners. They comment on the fact that they are getting awards that belong to much larger groups, with Incandela and Gianotti saying they are trying to find a way to distribute the money to younger members of the collaboration who most need it. Lyn Evans comments I will not be driving around CERN in a Ferrari. That would be very bad for my image. The Guardian has Hawking saying his plans for the money include helping his daughter who has an autistic son, and maybe a new vacation home. About the question of what the previous Milner prize recipients are doing with their$3 million, I’ve heard rumors that the one mathematician, Kontsevich, has been giving it away to others. From the physics side, the only thing I’ve seen was that Witten planned to give some to J Street, a group working for peace in the Middle East.

Update: For commentary on whether ATLAS and CMS spokespersons should keep the money, see Tommaso Dorigo.

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57 Responses to New Milner Prizes

1. Heidar says:

I am not sure I agree that all the theoretical prices (except Hawking), are directly based on string theory. For example Zohar Komargodski (one of the brightest people I have ever met), is mostly famous for work on field theory rather that string theory (proof of a-theorem for example, which is quite an important achievement). Also much of his work on SUSY is based on understanding non-perturbative aspects of field theory better, and not directly having string theory in mind.

As for the condensed matter award (for discovery of topological insulators) I disagree even more. These states are very interesting by themselves, and has almost no connection to string theory. They are not so interesting to study for AdS/CMT correspondence, since they are just gapped free-fermion theories and not some exotic strongly interacting gapless theories. The only paper I really know where people try to connect topological insulators to string theory, tries to draw a line between the K-theoretical classification of topological insulators to the K-theoretical classification of non-BPS branes, RR-fields etc.. Its an interesting idea, but I am afraid that the connection is not too profound, but rather about 2=2 and 8=8 (complex and real Bott periodicity, respectively). Can you elaborate in what sense you think topological insulators will connect to string theory?

2. Interested Layman says:

Why is it that Peter Higgs himself was not awarded any prize?

3. Peter Woit says:

Heidar,

I didn’t say they were “directly based on string theory”, but had “some connection” to it. Keep in mind that these days, what string theorists think of as “string theory” covers quite a lot. I’m no expert in condensed matter theory, and make no claim to understand what the prospects for techniques growing out of string theory are in different parts of that field. My observation was just the sociological one that many string theorists see applications to condensed matter as the hot topic and future of their subject, so this is a topic they take an interest in. To the extent they work in this area and have any success, it may of course be due to purely field-theoretical techniques.

Put differently, it looks like HEP phenomenology will be completely locked out of this. All the jobs may be going to phenomenologists, but that doesn’t mean the Fundamental Physics laureates are going to vote for them for awards.

4. Peter Woit says:

Interested Layman,

I think Milner is concentrating on making awards that complement the Nobel. An award for Higgs or others is exactly the kind of thing the Nobel committee normally does, so I’m guessing Milner has decided to leave Higgs up to them. He also seems to be more interested in rewarding relatively recent work, not octogenarians for things done 50 years ago (although Hawking is no spring chicken…)

5. King Ray says:

Perhaps Higgs didn’t win a Milner prize because he committed the faux pas of predicting a particle that actually ended up being observed. Quel outrage! 😉

6. M says:

prize to spokepersons?
Why not giving the prize to television journalists who spoke about the Higgs?

7. P says:

M,

The spokepersons are actually professors and practitioners of high energy physics. They rose to their positions through years of hard work in the field and communicate results to the public due to scientific expertise. Though it is strange to reward one person in a collaboration of thousands, the analogy (even tongue in cheek) to journalists isn’t a good one.

Cheers,
P

8. Simon says:

This could be a problem if the spokespeople use the money for their own personal benefit. They are only several among a long list of people who played key roles in the experiments and the discovery. They’re aware of this and don’t try to hide it. If they keep the money this will make life a little difficult on the collaborations. Were I to have received the money it wouldn’t be an easy decision to make to give it away (we all have mortgages to pay).

As was mentioned earlier, its very easy to destabilise a well functioning institution by pouring in money without too much prior thought.

9. anon says:

The argument that he leaves Higgs for the Nobel Prize is not really consistent with the award for the solid state experimenters. Their work should also be eligible for a Nobel Prize.

Concerning the three younger theorists, I’m with Heidar in that they are dominantly field theorists in my opinion (including supersymmetric field theories of course).

Congratulations to all of them!

10. Bernhard says:

Peter,

I remember when I said “this will become a string theory prize” you disagreed with me

but perhaps I was too vague. That, for the theory prizes, nearly all have “some connection” to string theory is no surprise and the kind of thing I had in mind…

I still have the feeling this whole story of this Milner Prize is undermining the importance of a real prize (the Nobel). Society is money driven and people simply don’t know how careful and long the process of choosing a Nobel Laureate is compared to the Milner Prize, which on the theory side is a “my pals get the prize” thing. And of course is worsen by the fact that is bigger money.

Even worse, since the prize for experimentalists ended up being decided by theorists who are in general clueless about how a modern collaboration really works, they had no other choice than do the most anachronic thing possible, which we were hoping the Nobel would correct, which is to give the prize to the spokespersons instead of to the collaborations or “to CERN” for that matter.

I admit I would never refuse the cash if I was the one receiving it and is only understandable the contenders are happy with it, but that I have to read from Heuer that “This prize recognizes the work of everyone who has contributed to the project over many years” is laughable. It also gives a clear message to young experimentalists that the way to success in collaborations is only by being a spokesperson which of course are not just about being a good scientist but also about charisma.

This whole thing is really depressing. Money talks everywhere, but should not talk so loudly in science.

11. Mark says:

Both spokesperson have said they will not keep the prize for personal use:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/dec/10/stephen-hawking-physics-prize

12. Bernhard says:

Mark,

I agree this is really noble of them and not something everybody would so. To be clear, they are really not to blame for getting a prize and certainly being a spokesperson of a HEP collaboration is not without merits. Still, my hope was that none of this would be actually necessary and that people would start viewing the collaborations as the semi-headless living organisms they are. The Milner Prize is no a step forward to achieve this goal.

13. nessuno says:

Dear Peter,
I am pretty sure that Evans will give the money to CERN, to partially pay back for his share of responsability in the 2008 LHC incident, caused by the negligence of him and of some other highly placed people. The incident material damage was estimated at 28.000.000 CHF, without counting one additional year of delay. An article on the Cern Courier had warned years in advance about the consequences of not carefully testing each LHC interconnection; yet, to save time, they skipped these tests. Here is the link
http://cerncourier.com/cws/article/cern/29012
Best regards,
nessuno

14. Bernhard says:

sorry, *not something everybody would do*

15. Mark says:

Yes I agree, its not great that they only acknowledge one person amongst several thousand (many of whom will have made significant scientific and other contributions to the Higgs discovery) and gives the wrong idea to outsiders about how things work.

16. Marcel van Velzen says:

It used to be Nature that told us who are the greatest theoretical physicists!

17. Bee says:

The AdS/CFT for cond matt stuff is interesting… but really what have we learned from this so far other than that there’s a lot of string theorists who have hammers and are looking for nails? It seems somewhat premature to hand out awards for this, same with susy and black hole evaporation – the way it looks right now this “fundamental physics” prize runs high risk of becoming a “mathematical physics” prize, or maybe not even that.

18. Heidar says:

@Bee

Which of the prizes have anything to do with AdS/CFT for cond matt…?

19. Esteban says:

Given all the prizes awarded I find it odd no Milner Prize was awarded to the five remaining Higgs theorists (Englert, Higgs, Guralnik, Hagen, Kibble). Especially since there is this issue of “3” for the Nobel Prize.

20. Peter Woit says:

Esteban,

One issue is that not everyone is convinced that all of those people deserve a Nobel Prize or something paying 3 times more.

Also, the Milner theory prizes have been restricted to topics that don’t have experimental confirmation of the sort the Nobel requires (or have even been for work that has found experimental disconfirmation…). If Milner starts going back to the early 1960s to find theorists to reward, including ones whose work never led to experimental confirmation, even he might start running out of money.

21. Esteban says:

I think the original theorists for the Higgs deserve a significant prize – especially if we are awarding prizes for the experiments. Pretty tough to determine who deserves most credit for this topic among the theorists and more broadly had a better physics career across those five. Also, having a low H-index should not exclude Peter Higgs from the Milner or the Nobel Prize.

22. anon says:

The prizes for the senior physicists all make sense in absolute terms, representing diverse directions, though many great contributors to the field are not included. The young guys are also all good choices, but reflect a clear bias for those who have gone through the IAS and work on formal supersymmetric quantum field theory. Young researchers from other institutions have made recent breakthroughs in well-motivated quantum field theory problems with real applications. This all has elements of a reality show, and I hope it does not deter talented physicists from pursuing a wider variety of important problems.

23. Bob Jones says:

“The AdS/CFT for cond matt stuff is interesting… It seems somewhat premature to hand out awards for this, same with susy and black hole evaporation”

Okay, first of all, the idea that these condensed matter prizes were awarded for work related to string theory is pure speculation. The citation for the prize says nothing about string theory. Secondly, the prize winners who study SUSY are working on formal aspects of SUSY, not speculative extensions of the standard model. Davide Gaiotto has done a lot of work on the six-dimensional (2,0)-theory for example, and his work has applications to the study of wall-crossing phenomena. This sort of work doesn’t require experimental verification, so I’m not sure how the prize could be premature. Finally, black hole evaporation is something that we will probably never observe, so it’s obviously being recognized as a formal result which has had a huge impact on quantum gravity research. I’m not sure how it’s premature to give an award for this.

“the way it looks right now this ‘fundamental physics’ prize runs high risk of becoming a ‘mathematical physics’ prize”

High risk? What’s wrong with mathematical physics?

24. layman says:

This is ridiculous. The work of the condensed matter guys has absolutely no direct connection to string theory, and to even hint that they got the prize because string theorists believe there may be a connection in the future borderlines in insanity and complete delusion (or schizo). A condensed matter person got the prize last year, some got it this year, and some will get it next year. There is no conspiracy here, except in Peter’s mind.

In addition, the work on the a-theorem mentioned above was neither motivated by nor related to string theory. Finally, Gaoitto’s work with collaborators on dualities across dimensions is a purely field-theoretic result, that involves non-SUSY 2d models that are extremely important in many branches of physics.

I have been following this blog for a while, and I must say that this post is a real peak in the amount of odor of delusion coming from it.

I hope Peter would be kind enough to leave this comment in place, so that the public knows better.

25. Bernhard says:

layman,

Even if the condensed matter guys have no connection with string theory this is still the “Physics Frontiers” prize not the “Fundamental Physics” prize, and this is the one that interests me because this is the one outsiders + media will be mostly looking at, simply because is THE big cash money.

My bet is that the condensed matter guys are there as a way to pretend this is not what is is: a string theory prize. In my view they don´t really have a chance. The big prize goes either to Polchinski or to Polyakov. Time will tell if I´m right.

26. observer says:

Layman,

The stringy types around my way at least are doing almost exclusively what they call condensed matter nowadays and have been working and publishing on topological insulators and other related topics inspired by them. And Charlie Kane et al are on clear track for a real Nobel, so it does make you wonder why they should be singled out for such recognition by a prize supposed to be somehow compensatory for lack of Nobel-rewardability.

27. Bob Jones says:

“The big prize goes either to Polchinski or to Polyakov. Time will tell if I´m right.”

And are they not deserving candidates?

28. Bernhard says:

Bob Jones,

Sure they are. But if only deserving string theorists get the prize as opposed to deserving theorists no matter their field, than one might as well change the name of the prize to the “Stringy Prize”. We are not there yet, so let´s hope I´m wrong.

29. layman says:

Bernhard: Polyakov’s seminal contributions from the 70s,80s are about CFTs etc, which is nowadays a cornerstone in condensed matter. His contributions to *condensed matter physics* arguably exceed those of the pure condensed matter guys who got the prize. Needless to say, Polyakov’s work on CFTs and minimal models (which describe all the basic spin systems at criticality) is familiar to every theoretical condensed matter physicist, so I wont be surprised if he gets the big cash in the end of the day. It would be totally justified.

Observer: none of the stringers on the committee worked or works on the connections between strings and condensed matter. (Perhaps there is one tangentially related paper by one of the committee members that I wont mention, but definitely none of them embarked on a line of research in this direction.) In fact, I know that many of them consider this activity disagreeable.

This is why the suggestion that condensed matter people are involved because this is where the committee sees the future of string theory is of utmost absurdity.

I dont think the prize is supposed to be a consolation prize, it is supposed to *supersede* the Nobel prize.

30. A.J. says:

Many of the best theoretical physicists of the past few decades have worked on string theory. Giving these people the prize doesn’t make it a string theory prize. It just reflects the history of the discipline. In 10 years, you’ll probably see a lot fewer prizes for string theory.

You could argue, I suppose, that the Milner Prize should be given to less formal, more phenomenologically oriented theorists, but I don’t see the point of this. At least the people doing formal theory have taught us a few things about the behavior of QFTs in general, whereas it’s looking like HEP phenomenology hasn’t made a correct prediction about TeV scale physics since the Standard Model was put in place.

31. Peter Woit says:

layman,

To be clear, I’m well aware that most of what many people generally described as “string theorists” do these days has nothing to do with string theory. When I point this out, I get attacked as denigrating string theory, now you’re attacking me for the opposite reason, for implying a connection to string theory of the work of Beisert, Gaiotto and Komargodski.

Gaiotto is an excellent example. I agree that his very interesting work, which is cited as “far-reaching new insights about duality, gauge theory, and geometry, and especially for his work linking theories in different dimensions in most unexpected ways.” is based in field theory, has little to nothing to do with string theory. And yet, Gaiotto has been a speaker at Strings 2008, Strings 2009, Strings 2010, Strings 2011 and Strings 2012. I haven’t checked, but it’s possible there’s no one else close to him except maybe Witten in terms of having this kind of dominant presence in recent years at the main Strings conference.

Komargodski spoke this year at Strings 2012, Beisert at Strings 2007 and Strings 2011. All of them have strong connections to the IAS, with Komargodski a current Member there, Gaiotto one until recently, and Beisert at Princeton from 2004-2007. Trying to claim that this list of three young people is not a list of people who have been working in what is referred to as “string theory” these days is absurd. As a list of the best young theorists in the world, it’s incredibly narrow in scope, and incredibly IAS-centric. Does this have anything to do with so much of the panel that made these decisions being IAS string theorists?

As for whether the fact that certain topics in condensed matter theory are the latest trend in string theory these days has anything to do with a panel of string theorists deciding that out of six awards, the only one not going to string theorists should go to one of those topics, people can make up their own mind (and decide for themselves who is “schizo”). About the accusation that I’m claiming the condensed matter work has “direct connection to string theory”, for the second time, please read what I actually wrote.

32. Bernhard says:

“I dont think the prize is supposed to be a consolation prize, it is supposed to *supersede* the Nobel prize.”

Well, this is what this prize is, a consolation prize for high profile people without a Nobel.

Supersede the Nobel, give me a break…

33. Bob Jones says:

“But if only deserving string theorists get the prize as opposed to deserving theorists no matter their field, than one might as well change the name of the prize to the ‘Stringy Prize’.”

Yeah, but the prize has already gone to theorists who don’t work on string theory per se, so I don’t know why you’re worried about that. You also have to realize that string theory is a well established part of physical mathematics, so it’s inevitable that many of the people who have made important contributions to fundamental physics have also done work in string theory.

34. Bob Jones says:

“Gaiotto is an excellent example. I agree that his very interesting work, which is cited as ‘far-reaching new insights about duality, gauge theory, and geometry, and especially for his work linking theories in different dimensions in most unexpected ways.’ is based in field theory, has little to nothing to do with string theory.”

Of course it’s related to string theory! The reason those dualities and connections to geometry exist is that the theories Gaiotto is studying come from a consistent six-dimensional supersymmetric theory which is equivalent to M-theory!

35. Peter Woit says:

Bob Jones,

Maybe you and “layman” can fight out the Gaiotto issue and let me know who wins.

36. Bernhard says:

Bob Jones,

Strictly speaking nobody really got this prize yet. In the the first year the contenders were chosen by Milner and one can argue that this is more like choosing a committee, since Milner is himself nobody in position to decide anything about theoretical physics. It´s the coming years that are important in what concerns this prize, so let´s see what happens from now on.

I will try to keep in mind that “many of the people who have made important contributions to fundamental physics have also done work in string theory” even though in the case of Polchinski and Polyakov this kind of coincidence is harder to swallow.

37. youngtheorist says:

It looks like the new horizons prizes are for theorists under 35.
The euro phys society has a prize every two years for exactly this age range. The last three winners were Gaiotto, Cachazo and Beisert. (Cachazo is now probably over 35, also was at IAS for many years). So two of the three winners were given young theorist prizes by an international group. Komargodski’s work on the a theorem is a major development, makes perfect sense to recognize it. I don’t see an IAS conspiracy here.

38. Bob Jones says:

Peter,

If layman is saying that Gaiotto’s work is related to string theory, then I can certainly pursue the discussion with him or her. But I’m more interested in your thoughts about about this prize. What difference does it make if it is mostly awarded to people who work on string theory? You apparently find their work very interesting, and we have every reason to believe that the prize will continue to have high standards.

Bernhard,

The fact that Polyakov and Polchinski work on string theory and made important contributions to fundamental physics is not a “coincidence”. These topics are not mutually exclusive…

39. Bob Jones says:

Oops, I meant to say, “if layman is saying that Gaiotto’s work is NOT related to string theory…”

40. Peter Woit says:

Bob Jones,

I just think it’s a very unhealthy situation to have theoretical and mathematical physics so heavily influenced by the idea that only things with some connection to an overhyped, failed idea about physics are worth pursuing. The large sums of money being thrown at this and the very narrow choices being made about what sort of young researchers deserve recognition aren’t helpful at all.

41. Allan Rosenberg says:

Experimentalists and condensed matter theorists? Do they even count as physicists? Next year it will probably be lumberjacks, used car salesmen, and CERN’s lawyers.

42. layman says:

“Maybe you and “layman” can fight out the Gaiotto issue and let me know who wins.”

This is ridiculous, instead of looking for interesting science to write or think about, Peter wants to see blood. A gossip blog of the best kind.

Anyway, the work of Davide and Zohar has addressed issues that existed even before string theory was popular, and they have nothing to do with string theory. The work of Davide led to some insights about conformal symmetry in 2d (which as I mentioned is ubiquitous in many branches of physics and mathematics), especially the structure of conformal blocks. The work of Zohar address questions about RG flows that existed in principle since the time Wilson wrote his seminar papers, much before string theory, and completely unrelated to it.

43. piscator says:

This is all terribly depressing – everything that was said originally about the narrow IAS-centric scope of the original Milner prize awards has turned out to be true. The whole thing smells cheap and sleazy.

Arguments about whether or not the work is string theory or nor miss the point. The real issue is that you have a big money prize where a precondition for receiving the prize is that you are an approved favourite son of one of three of four people. It distorts the subject, it doesn’t look remotely independent, and it stinks of cronyism.

44. M says:

dear P., I know what a spokeperson is (somebody good both in experiment and in politics) and I also know who did the real work (as I am a theorist experienced in collecting rumors).
The discovery of the Higgs was a huge collaborative work with individual contributions below the 1% level. I think it is a real mistake to give awards based on visibility when joung bright experimentalists cannot get the recognition they deserve and somebody abandons disliking internal burocracy and Fordian workflow.

45. Peter Woit says:

layman,

You definitely lack a sense of humor. No one here is calling for blood. I am however making fun of your claim that the work of a speaker at Strings 2008, Strings 2009, Strings 2010, Strings 2011 and Strings 2012 has nothing to do with string theory. Not that I disagree with this claim, just pointing out it’s a schizo world we live in…

46. Bee says:

Ah, sorry, I just simply misread what Peter wrote. But, eh, treat it as a prediction 😉

47. P says:

M, I think we are in agreement, after all.

Piscator, I think you’re mistaking correlation for causation. Gaiotto and Komargodski do have IAS affiliations and certainly are some of the “favorite sons” of some of the famous older theorists there. But it is pretty much universally accepted in top theory groups that their works are seminal contributions in quantum field theory, though sometimes motivated by strings (As Bob Jones pointed out, the (2,0) d=6 theory Gaiotto uses is believed to be closely related to the worldvolume theory of an M5-brane and leads to many beautiful dualities in d=2,3,4), and as such many would think they deserve their prizes.

48. All of the awardees are outstanding scientists with wonderful achievements, and I’m glad they are getting this recognition. More comments here:
http://quantumfrontiers.com/2012/12/11/fundamental-physics-prize-prediction-polyakov/

49. Heidar says:

For those who are interested, John Preskill has written about the awards here http://quantumfrontiers.com/2012/12/11/fundamental-physics-prize-prediction-polyakov/ (see also http://quantumfrontiers.com/2012/12/10/stephen-hawking-wins-3m-milner-prize/). He predicts Polyakov will win the full prize, I cannot agree more. His extremely deep contributions to theoretical physics is matched by very few others, even if one neglects all his work on string theory.