Fundamental Physics Prize to Polyakov

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).

For more about Polyakov’s work, the best source is the man himself. He has written some wonderful articles about this history and the evolution of his thinking, see for instance here, here and here.

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.

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23 Responses to Fundamental Physics Prize to Polyakov

  1. ketchup says:

    It sure is ironic that Matt Strassler posted an unsubstantiated rumor. I hope he did not subvert the scientific process of the awarding of the Fundamental Physics Prize.

  2. Bob Jones says:

    “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.”

    None of these prizes have been awarded specifically for work on the more speculative aspects of string theory. The accomplishments of all the FPP laureates are well established.

  3. Peter Woit says:

    Bob Jones,

    Did you watch the awards ceremony that I was describing?

  4. Bob Jones says:

    Peter,

    Yes, and I have to say that all the lights and goofy music made me cringe. I wish they would tone it down and hire someone more serious for their master of ceremonies. I think it’s embarrassing to honor all these great scientists in such a silly way.

    As for their discussion of string theory, I’m not worried that the public will get the wrong impression of the subject. They did mention a couple of speculative topics in the ceremony, but most of what they were talking about were important and well established results of mathematical physics. I think it’s great if the prize generates more widespread appreciation of this sort of work. In my experience, most laypeople are already rather suspicious of string theory, and they tend to under-appreciate its value as a tool in the study of quantum field theory and quantum gravity.

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  6. Bob Jones says:

    Also, I’m not sure how much you watched, but most of the awards ceremony was about the discovery of the Higgs boson. They even got Charlie Rose to interview the experimentalists via Skype.

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  8. MathPhys says:

    Is that photo of Polyakov with the trophy photoshopped? He looks ridiculous in that tux.

  9. Jin says:

    Where is planck mission announcement? A similar result?

  10. All your jeering aside, that is a great-looking trophy. I assume it’s meant to be a Hopf fibration?

    I also wonder what economists would think about a prize so large, which, unlike the Fields Medal and Wolf prize, could allow someone to retire early. Physics politics aside, would such a prize act as a motivation/inspiration, or will it cause mid-career experts to become less productive? (By comparison, the Abel prize is approximately 1 M$, but it so far is only for people who are already “well-settled” in their careers and lives. The Nobel is usually split several ways.)

  11. jin says:

    Thanks, I finally found it. It is Simon White not Pavel Kroupa. It is unfair.

  12. Peter Woit says:

    Abraham Smith,

    Here’s the official description:

    “All of the 2012 and 2013 Fundamental Physics Prize Foundation winners participated in the Ceremony and also received the special award trophy, a work of art created by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson.

    The Fundamental Physics Prize trophy is a silver sphere with a coiled vortex inside. The form is, in fact, a toroid, or doughnut shape, resulting from two sets of intertwining three-dimensional spirals. Found in nature, these spirals are seen in animal horns, nautilus shells, whirlpools, and even galaxies and black holes.

    The award is made of silver, an artistically significant material for a physics prize, as silver materialized from exploding stars.”

  13. Cynthia Reid says:

    Bash the ceremony as you may (perhaps because you weren’t invited?), it was refreshing and encouraging to see money, effort and recognition put into something beneficial in the sciences for a change, rather than sports and entertainment. Seeing physicists paying respect to the evening and the Foundation by honoring the black tie dress code was memorable. They ALL looked great.

  14. Cynthia Reid says:

    OK, that was snide and I apologize. But it was great to see physicists finally get some mainstream public recognition.

  15. Peter Woit says:

    Cynthia Reid,

    Just to be clear, I’m critical of the endless overhyping of string theory and the damage that has done to the subject, with a flood of $3 million checks and this kind of hype-filled production not helping the matter at all. I’ve no problem with the award to the LHC experimentalists, that’s great.

    As for the ceremony, what I saw of it wasn’t my kind of thing, so I wouldn’t have enjoyed it even if invited (and some of those laureates up on stage didn’t look like they were having a good time…) But I’m glad if others enjoyed it.

  16. Bernhard says:

    Peter,

    It is very unfortunate this is a stringy prize, blamed on the fact the committee chosen by Milner was simply too narrow. But, with the criteria being personal achievement in the field rather than being right about anything (which is the criteria the facto) , Polyakov more than meets it. With the same criteria for the experimentalists it is extremely hard to say the same. I think Polyakov deserves, in this respect, way way more than them.

  17. N. says:

    Circus Incredible.

  18. Peter Woit says:

    Bernhard,

    My impression was that for the experimental rewards, it was supposed to be clear that these were not really awards for personal achievement, but awards to one person meant to symbolize a larger group. I’d hope the awardees spent a lot of time at the ceremony acknowledging that. What happened to the supposed plans that these awardees had to distribute the money somehow to younger people who could use it? Are those going ahead, or are they going to just keep the money?

  19. Bernhard says:

    Peter,

    This might be the underlying idea, but it is not what it is being explicitly said on the prize´s “awarded for” and therefore not the idea the general public is getting.

    In any case, about what they will do with the cash, I don´t know. Last time I checked only Fabiola Gianotti explicitly said she wanted to “set up a fund with her share of the prize to support young physicists in the Atlas group”. Incandela said something more vague about ” find a way to put this to good use for the benefit of all who made this possible”, but this was when the prize was announced and I did not hear about it anymore since then. I guess now that they have the money we should wait a few months to see what happens. The other spokespersons by the way, did not make the same claim, as far as I know.

  20. Yatima says:

    Somewhat earlier, Abraham Smith said:

    > I also wonder what economists would think about a prize so large

    Well, real economists (a set not fully compatible with the set of of clowns writing economics columns in the NYT) would just STFU because there is nothing to be said about this at all except that someone spends money on something that he evidently thinks is worth spending the money on. Taxpayers are apparently not involved, so no spending of other people’s money either. Any further development is up to the receiver of the donation. Human Action? Hell yeah.

  21. Peter Woit says:

    Yatima,

    Please, ideological discussions about economics are one of the few things stupider than discussions of the multiverse. No more, ever.

    Yuri Milner has decided that he doesn’t like the way capitalism has been working in this area, and so has decided to change the structure of rewards in physics research. He has every right to do this, those with less money have every right to either applaud or criticize his decision.

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