As I predicted a few days ago, the string theorists in Princeton have made their choice for the $3 million dollar Fundamental Physics Prize: another Princeton string theorist, Alexander Polyakov. Evidently there’s no official announcement, so Matt Strassler has retracted his original posting about this, now calling it an “unsubstantiated rumor”, but someone at the ceremony e-mailed me with the news, so it is substantiated.
Earlier today I did watch the first part of the awards ceremony, although I had to leave to do something else before the Polyakov announcement. It was quite remarkable, designed to look very much like an Oscar ceremony, with Morgan Freeman as master of ceremonies, and the Laureates getting a big trophy to take home, as well as the $3 million check. The program was largely a string theory hype-fest, with the description of the accomplishments of the Laureates making no distinction at all between what was purely speculative and what wasn’t. Viewers of the part I saw would have no idea that string theory is not tested, settled science.
Polyakov was one of the leading figures during the 1970s and early 1980s in the effort to understand the non-perturbative behavior of QFTs, especially the question of how confinement in QCD works. By the early 1980s, one of the most promising ideas about this was to try and find a string theory dual for QCD (and I spent quite a bit of time reading papers by Polyakov and collaborators about string theory and possible relations of it to gauge theory). As far as I can tell, Polyakov was never much of an enthusiast for 10d string theory unification, but kept arguing that what was interesting about string theory was the possible dual relationship to gauge theory, a point of view that has become the dominant one in recent years with the rise of AdS/CFT (which Polyakov played a role in).
Anyway, congratulations to Polyakov, a great physicist who now won’t be impoverished compared to his colleagues. Perhaps in future years the scope of the Fundamental Physics Prize can be widened, with string theorists at Harvard and Santa Barbara sharing in the loot.
Update: Here’s a picture of Polyakov and the trophy you get with the $3 million. The money will provide him with “more freedom and opportunity to pursue future accomplishment.”
Update: The official announcement is here.
Update: Nature has a report about the awards ceremony, as Internet billionaire throws lavish soiree for physicists.