Back to the Usual

I’m now back to regular internet access, in London for a few days after a trip to East Africa, where I managed to see the November 3 total solar eclipse through light clouds from a location in Northern Uganda. From checking various news sources, it looks like the main pieces of HEP-related news that I missed weren’t very surprising:

• The LUX experiment reported stronger limits on WIMP dark matter, ruling out various claims for evidence of such dark matter particles at relatively low mass. For more about this, good sources are Resonaances, Matt Strassler, and Tommaso Dorigo.
• The $3 million Fundamental Physics Prize as usual identifies “Fundamental Physics” with string theory, with the announcement that the nominees for the 2014 prize are 5 string theorists (Polchinski, Green/Schwarz, and Strominger/Vafa). I confess that I can’t figure out exactly how this prize process is supposed to work. The announcement says that the nominees get a “Physics Frontiers Prize”, a shot at the$3 million, and

Those who do not win it will each receive $300,000 and will automatically be re-nominated for the next 5 years. What I don’t understand is that Polchinski already got such a nomination and prize last year (and the$300,000 consolation prize for not getting the $3 million). It seems that he is getting another identical prize this year, with another$300,000 or $3 million. On the other hand, the only non-string theorists ever to win this prize (last year’s condensed matter group Kane/Molenkamp/Zhang) didn’t get a second one this year, and it’s unclear if they still have a possible$3 million payday in 2014. Perhaps the rules are different for string theorists, the idea being that you just can’t give too many prizes for string theory.

I’ll bet that Green/Schwarz will be the 2014 winners, on the grounds that if you’re going to hand out lots of prizes for working on the superstring, its co-discoverers should be among the first in line. While this means that Polchinski will only get a second $300,000, it’s in his interest to lose as many times as possible before winning. As for the$100,000 prizes for young researchers, this year was different than last year. The winners (Cachazo/Minwalla/Rychkov) were two Princeton Ph.Ds and one ex-Princeton post-doc, whereas last year is was one Princeton Ph.D and all three were ex-Princeton post-docs.

• In other news, Max Tegmark, known for his work on the multiverse, is running a “Project Einstein”, which has found 400 theoretical physicists and mathematicians who have agreed to have their genes sequenced. The idea is that they are “math geniuses”, but no one seems to know what will be done with the genetic data for these geniuses. It’s unclear who these “geniuses” are, but we do know that one person who was asked and declined was Curt McMullen. His reaction to this project was what I suspect was a common one:

“I thought it was strange that it was called ‘Project Einstein’, which seemed designed to appeal to the participants’ egos,” he says. He asked the project’s staff and the New England Institutional Review Board, which approved the study, to explain how results would be used. “The uniform answer to my questions was that ‘we are not responsible for how the information is used after the study is completed’,” he says.

If Project Einstein identifies a common gene among its participants, and uses the knowledge to breed a race of übermenschen, they may find they have selected not for unusual mathematical genius, but for unusual ego.

Update: I realized there’s one other remarkable thing about the six winners of the “New Horizons in Physics Prize”. Besides all having a close Princeton connection, none of them has a job in the US. It seems US physics departments are not buying what Princeton is selling right now…

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94 Responses to Back to the Usual

1. svik says:

I don’t think there is a math gene(s).
The common denominator is being unwanted and a social outcast, this causes us to turn to the love of math as an escape. Yes it is so with most scientists.
….
Now if a math gene is found I support math men should only marry the sisters of other math geniuses. Then in 60 years we will have a new breed of mathies that can finally prove or revoke string theory. 🙂

2. Automatic nomination for the next five years doesn’t mean that the nominee will be automaticly among those three front runners.

3. David M. says:

Peter,
About the Fundamental Physics Prize, I would definitely agree there is a Princeton/String theory bias, although I don’t necessarily think that its a bad thing. I don’t see anyone on that list who does not deserved to be honored. Their work is invaluable for our understanding of QFT and quantum gravity even if String Theory does not describe nature.

My question to you is, who would you choose to be given such an award? I mean with the current purpose of the award, to honor physicists whose work is of paramount theoretical import, but may not be directly connected to experimental physics and/or is underappreciated by the general public.

I don’t ask this as a challenge, I’m not implying these are the only people who should be honored. I’m asking because when I think of people who should be given such an honor these are the names I would think of first and I’m genuinely curious.

4. Peter Woit says:

Kimmo Rouvari,

Maybe you’re right that’s how it works. Kind of odd though, since anyone can nominate anyone on-line, being automatically nominated for five years isn’t very meaningful. If that’s how it works, one wonders why a non-string theory nomination was at the top of the list last year, didn’t make it this year.

David M.,

One obvious name would be Roger Penrose’s. He’s the one responsible for the twistor techniques at the heart of the whole amplitudes business. Do you think hostility to string theory might have something to do with why he’s not $3 million richer? The overall problem with these prizes is that they are based on an extremely narrow vision of what “fundamental physics” is, both intellectually and geographically. Furthermore, this is a narrow vision that has been extremely unsuccessful over the past few decades, with one reason for its failures precisely this narrowness. 5. Bee says: übermenchen -> übermenschen 6. Peter Woit says: Thanks Bee, fixed. 7. Armin Nikkhah Shirazi says: David M, It seems to me that your perspective is so deeply entrenched in the current paradigm that the central issue escaped you completely. The issue does not center around whether the current nominees are deserving of honor or not but around the fact that the name of this award clearly would lead one to believe that it is given for major advances in fundamental physics, but that it is given in actuality only for major advances in just one subfield which, moreover, still awaits experimental confirmation; the prize is not what it purports to be. Also, it seems to me that calling a string theory prize a fundamental physics prize is a slap in the face of all the theorists who have actually made what would be rightfully regarded as outstanding contributions in fundamental physics which happen not to be related to string theory (or only indirectly so). I think that instead of talking about these theorists in the abstract, it is more effective to actually name some of them, and indeed you requested a list of names. So, with apologies to Peter here is my own subjective list of living non-nobel laureate theorists who I think would make terrible candidates for a string theory prize but outstanding candidates for a fundamental physics prize (I almost certainly omitted many other highly deserving physicists but that would only further make my point): 1. Freeman Dyson (Many contributions) 2. Roger Penrose (Many contributions) 3. George Zweig (Independent discovery of quarks) 4. Jim Peebles (Prediction of CMB) 5. George Sudarshan (Sudarshan-Glauber P representation, Quantum Zeno effect) 6. Yakir Aharonov (AB effect, Weak Measurement Theory) 7. Simon Kochen (Kochen-Specker Theorem) 8. John Clauser/Michael Horner/Abner Shimony/Richard Holt (CHSH inequality) 9. Gerald Guralnick/ Carl Richard Hagen /Tom Kibble (Higgs Mechanism) 10. Jeffrey Goldstone (Goldstone theorem) 11. N. David Mermin/Herbert Wagner (Mermin-Wagner Theorem) 12. Ludvig Fadeev (several eponymous results in QFT) 13. Hagen Kleinert (significant expansion of domain of applicability of path integrals) 14. Rudolf Haag (Haag’s theorem) 15. Martin Reese (Cosmology) 16. Jakob Bekenstein (Black Hole Thermodynamics) 17. William Unruh/Paul Davies/ Stephen Fulling (Unruh Effect) 18. Richard Arnowitt/ Stanley Deser/ Charles Misner (ABM Formalism) 19. Yoshio Koide (Koide formula) 20. Toichiro Kinoshita (precision QFT computations) I’ll let you compare this list with that of the current nominees and draw your own conclusions. 8. A String Theorist says: You write “It seems US physics departments are not buying what Princeton is selling right now” but I think you have it completely backward. To my personal knowledge most (perhaps all?) of the winners had job offers in the US, but the landscape (no pun intended!) has really changed in recent years. Frankly, there is very little that US academic institutions can offer compared to many of the top places outside the US. Considerations across the board, from salary, to research support, to funding possibilities, to the quality of available graduate students and postdocs, to the increasing ability of young researchers to stay in their home country (if they choose to), lead many to the conclusion that the US is certain no longer “the place to be” for theoretical physics. As a theoretical physicist as a US institution, I’m happy that great opportunities are becoming available outside the US, but on the flip side I’m saddened to see the decline in the US. 9. Philip Gibbs says: Armin Nikkhah Shirazi, your list includes many great achievements but the rules insist that the prizes “Should recognize major achievements, with special attention to recent developments.” I don’t see anyone on your list whose work is both major enough and recent enough compared to those recognised so far. 10. jim says: The thinking motivating “Project Einstein” is the reason you never let theorists touch your equipment. 11. Kavanna says: Armin’s list is great and shows that, while Nobel Prizes can recognize greatness, they just as often miss it, for whatever reason. A classic fun game is to name the great writers who didn’t receive the Literature Prize. US physics departments are not buying what Princeton’s selling — a correct statement for the last 5-6 years. It’s not just opportunities opening up elsewhere; those have been there for a while. Thankfully, US physics faculties are no longer scrambling for crumbs from the Princeton table. Better late than never. 12. Kris Krogh says: Philip Gibbs, “I don’t see anyone on [Armin Nikkhah Shirazi’s] list whose work is both major enough and recent enough compared to those recognised so far.” Are you familiar with Aharonov’s work? It’s true the AB effect is not recent, but his work on weak measurements is, and is currently having a major impact. 13. Armin Nikkhah Shirazi says: Hi Phil, Well, what does the statement “Should recognize major achievements, with special attention to recent developments” actually mean? It seems to me that under a liberal interpretation, one could, for example, even take Dyson’s contribution from the late 1940’s to be a major achievement “with special attention” to the discovery of the Higgs boson. The nobel committee certainly had no qualms about considering a theoretical discovery made almost 50 years ago as compatible with the specification in Alfred Nobel’s will that the prize be awarded to “those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” But, let me not play this game and just partially agree with you. I think that some, but not all, of the achievements may be difficult to square with a reasonable interpretation of that (in my opinion highly ambiguous) sentence. However, even then I don’t see how your argument challenges the point that what is being called a fundamental physics prize is in reality a string theory prize, unless you are suggesting that the only recent significant theoretical discoveries come excusively out of string theory. I hope that is not what you mean to imply, for if you do, then it reflects that you are just as guilty of the narrow vision and-pardon me for expressing this because I truly have great respect for you-hubris as what allowed something like this to happen in the first place. 14. Jeffo says: Based on the picture accompanying the Nature article, I’d say it’s more urgent that we identify the “bad-fashion-sense” gene! 15. David M. says: Armin, In your original list I do agree that many physicists you mention deserved to be honored, but like Phil mentioned they did their most important work a while back, pre 1980s typically. I know there are plenty of people out there who deserved a nobel but thats outside the parameters of the debate. And there are physicists who deserve to be honored for important work done in the past 30 years, Mikhail Shifman, Randall & Sundrum, and Xiao Gang Wen come to mind. I said the people listed were the first to come to mind not the only ones! I also have to say I disagree with the characterization that US institutions are some how no longer hiring people from princeton. If you check out the particle theory rumor mill for 2013 you’ll see that 7 people offered jobs either got their Ph.D at Princeton or did a postdoc there. Thats out of 17 so ~41%. 16. Philip Gibbs says: Whoa Armin! You are putting an awful lot of words in my mouth. I never said or implied anything about whether the current distribution of prizes is too narrow. I do think the string theory prizes are merited but I agree that there are other recent areas of fundamental physics that could be included. The problem is that the whole area has been fractured down the middle by the string wars. If Milner had started out giving the prizes to Smolin, Rovelli etc we might now see all the prizes going to people connected to the Perimeter Institute instead of Princeton. That’s just the way the field is at the moment. 17. JHe says: Dear Phil, The link at your name is blog.vixra.com. It should be blog.vixra.org. It must be your mistake. 18. Peter Woit says: A String Theorist, I don’t doubt that the 6 prize winners could have found some sort of job in the US, but I think the evidence is that there was less enthusiasm for hiring them in the US than in the other places they ended up. In mathematics the best young US-trained mathematicians are aggressively recruited by US institutions, which do very well in competing with offers from other countries. My impression is that US physics departments are now rarely willing to do this kind of recruiting in string theory. David M., I haven’t checked your numbers, but in any case I didn’t intend to claim there’s some sort of prejudice about hiring anyone with a Princeton connection, the reference was to string theory, and plenty of theorists with Princeton connections work in quite different areas. 19. Peter Woit says: One person contacted by “Project Einstein” forwarded me the e-mails they sent. They didn’t call it “Project Einstein” in the e-mails, and said nothing about what they planned to do with the data other than to collaborate with Tegmark on some sort of data analysis to “uncover the genetics of mathematical reasoning and abstract thought”. This person’s reaction to the request for his genetic material was that he really was only interested in providing it in the time-honored standard biological manner, but it seems that wasn’t what “Project Einstein” had in mind. 20. IM says: Among the recipients of the New Horizons in Physics Prize, Slava Rychkov’s work, cited as “for developing new techniques in conformal field theory, reviving the conformal bootstrap program for constraining the spectrum of operators and the structure constants in 3D and 4D CFT’s” is entirely on field theory (though he has earlier worked on string theory, and CFT results may be relevant for AdS/CFT). See https://sites.google.com/site/slavarychkov/ for his ongoing work. 21. Peter Woit says: IM, Thanks. Actually, none of the new young prize winners are really doing string theory, in the sense of having a significant connection to the quantized theory of strings. There is though some subfield of theoretical physics that one could best characterize only sociologically, as “those topics discussed at Strings 20XX”, which these days mostly don’t have to do with strings. This field deserves a name, but I don’t know what to call it, and people often call it “string theory”. Calling it “Formal QFT” as opposed to “Phenomenological QFT”, has the drawback that it implies that there is no non-phenomenological qft work that isn’t part of this subfield, which is far from the truth. The other problem is that this is highly time-dependent, these days you can for instance be doing twistors or hydrodynamics and fit in here, but at previous times that would very much not be the case. 22. John says: Concerning the prize for young researchers, I wonder why nobody mentioned an apparent conflict of interest: Witten-Gaiotto, Seiberg-Komargodsi, Polyakov-Rychkov,… It’s like having parents in the selection comittee. 23. layman says: corrections: 1.) US is not buying: you have no idea what you are talking about and which job opportunities some of the laureates had. I would call some of the offers I know people had quite aggressive and generous. It is just that nowadays some institutions outside of the US (mostly private ones) can easily compete even with the best offers from Harvard and Princeton… And why not settle in Europe, where the food is much better and the health care much nicer? 🙂 2.) The list of Mr Armin: 90% of the people you mentioned do not fit the definition of the prize either because they have not done something which is significant enough or because they have been inactive for 20 years. Also you have a typo: ABM->ADM. The 10% who fit the definition of the prize may very well get it in the future, I dont see why not. You also missed many deserving cosmologists and condensed matter physicists. 3.) Penrose does not fit the definition of the prize, which is why he will never get it, regardless of his achievements. Other people who hate string theory may well get it because they do fit the definition. 4.) Many of the other comments here reflect deep ignorance of what is going on. Also not being able to understand the rules of the prize by reading the 2 online paragraphs does not bode well for being ever able to understand modern physics (but I guess we already knew that). 24. Peter Woit says: layman, Why does Penrose not fit the definition of the prize (for his work on twistors + singularities in GR?)? If string theorists are as attractive to US institutions as people in other fields, why do you think US institutions are ending up with many of the best young mathematicians, but not the string theorists? Back in the late 1980s there were many US departments trying to hire in string theory, making the best offers in the world (e.g. Rutgers). Can you point to even one US physics department that now has hiring a string theorist as its top priority? And, by the way, do you think the perception that string theorists are insufferably arrogant people who go on endlessly about how anyone who disagrees with them is stupid and ignorant might have anything to do with why these departments aren’t hiring string theorists? 25. layman says: The ease with which you make claims which are as bold as they are wrong is astonishing. I hope that the standards you apply when you do research are slightly higher. It is you, not me, who said ” It seems US physics departments are not buying what Princeton is selling right now… .” You had not a single bit of knowledge on any of the personal circumstances of the laureates, about the offers they had from elsewhere (which are sometimes more attractive salary-wise than the salary of any two young mathematicians anywhere in the US combined!), and about the offers they may or may not hold now. Yet, in spite of that, you made a bold claim and drew a far-reaching conclusion from that claim based on zero understanding of the data and the circumstances. Let me also assure you that some people among the six had offers from the US far exceeding salary-wise the salary of ANY single young mathematician in the US. I think it is not surprising that a person would react arrogantly to claims made with such confidence but with so little actual knowledge. I think it is much more arrogant to feed (presumably) thousands of your readers with wide speculations framed as universal truths. On the other hand, maybe your readers deserve to be treated liked that 🙂 To further demonstrate how pathetic this discussion is, let me please mention the four Fields medalists of 2010, Elon Lindenstrauss, Ngô Bảo Châu, Stanislav Smirnov, Cedric Villani. Now let us test your theory that the US attracts bright mathematicians by checking how many of these 4 had a permanent job at the US at the time they got the medal. Answer: 0/4. It is true that at least 2 of them spent ample time in the USA before or after the medal, but they did not have a permanent job there and most of their time was spent outside of US soil. I would say the situation is remarkably reminiscent of the physics prize. Also 2/4 are very closely tied with Princeton. So it seems that also in math the US is not buying what Princeton is selling. I think at this point I am flogging a dead horse, but regarding your other questions: “Can you point to even one US physics department that now has hiring a string theorist as its top priority?” I am not based in the US, and unlike you, I am not discussing matters with which I have no intimate knowledge so I don’t have an answer. I just know that many hep-th people are getting extremely generous offers from many places in the US. So I assume it is a very high priority. “Why does Penrose not fit the definition of the prize (for his work on twistors + singularities in GR?)?” The prize is not awarded to people who did *great* stuff in the early 70s and after that either decoupled or became lunatics. The emphasis is on people who are still active and are doing good and sensible things. Unlike Penrose, Hawking got the prize and fits the definitions quite well (he was an avid participant in the modern discussions about the information paradox and the wave function of the universe). 26. layman says: Also many of Penrose’s results are in collaboration with Hawking, who later did much more important and *fundamental* things than twistors or the classical singularity theorems. So if one has to give the prize to one of the two the choice is obvious. Especially that it is a FPP and not a prize in mathematical physics. So unfortunately, despite the monumental effort of the impressive hive mind here, nobody came up with a single name of a clearly more deserving FPP laureate than the existing ones. Sure, there are many people who deserve, but no evidence points to the fact that the selection is biased. (BTW, even though we are talking small numbers here, the PU and IAS seem to be comparably dominant among the Fields medalists as the FPP, and in both cases many of the laureates just spent time in IAS or PU, and then moved elsewhere, often not on US soil.) 27. Anonymous Lurker says: Layman: Where does it say that a recipient of the Fundamental Physics Prize does it say that the recipient still has to be active? I looked at the web, and didn’t see this criterion anywhere. Hawking’s citation says “For his discovery of Hawking radiation from black holes, and his deep contributions to quantum gravity and quantum aspects of the early universe.” If the prize is supposed to be for recent work, why did they not mention any of his recent work? And is Alexander Polyakov still active? He got the prize last year, he’s 68, he was certainly a great physicist, but it doesn’t look to me like he’s done that much in the last few years. 28. Peter Woit says: layman, From what you write it’s clear you have no idea what kinds of salaries the best young mathematicians in the US can command (they’re every bit comparable to the what the best young physicists are offered, the star system is not just in physics). As for my comment about what US departments are not buying, it’s simply a fact. Your argument is just that they’re not buying because they can’t afford to pay the price. I don’t believe this because I’m well informed about the mathematics job market, what the competition for the best people is like, and who is paying what. All the evidence I’ve seen is that the market in physics is not that different. The Fields medalists you mention are different in a lot of ways (one of which is that this is a distinction universally recognized by the math community, whereas Milner’s prize is a very different story). The market for Fields medalists is highly competitive, with US universities willing to pay top dollar for them. Ngo chose an offer from Chicago after his Fields medal, and, while I don’t know the details, I don’t think low salary offers from US institutions is the reason the other three have chosen to stay where they are. As for Hawking/Penrose, I don’t see how twistors aren’t a truly fundamental idea, it’s one of the bases for the modern work on amplitudes, every bit as significant as the string theory-related advances that many of the FPP winners got their prizes for. Being an “avid participant in the modern discussions about the information paradox and the wave function of the universe'” seems to me to have nothing to do with whether one should get a prize for anything or not. Referring to Penrose as a “lunatic” is worthy of Lubos, you should try and get a grip. I’m no fan of some of Penrose’s recent ideas, but they’re no sillier than the M-theory multiverse business that Hawking has been writing books pushing. 29. A String Theorist says: Expanding on my comment above: it’s interesting that you mention Rutgers, Peter, because one of the appealing aspects of Rutgers in those days (I don’t know if its still true?) is that they could offer string theorists 1/2 teaching load (that is, one course per calendar year). In my comment above, where I mentioned some of the factors that make some positions outside the US so appealing, embarrassingly I forgot to mention the Holy Grail! Several (perhaps all? I’m not sure) of the six New Horizons winners have non-teaching positions! Zero! No physics department in the US can offer that, and it is priceless. 30. Bob Jones says: I think it’s only a matter of time before Strominger and Vafa win this prize. I’m was actually surprised that they didn’t win it the first time around. I’m also surprised that no one has mentioned ‘t Hooft. He seems to be the perfect candidate for this. 31. paddy says: @ A String Theorist Is it a good thing that academic institutions do not require teaching? This was my second thought after facetiously thinking: Thank heaven they won’t be teaching. 32. Philip Gibbs says: On the subject of Project Einstein, John Baez has said on Google+ that he will participate and gave some details about the consent conditions. I think the traits and circumstances that lead to people becoming maths or physics leaders is too broad for such a small sample of genomes. They might do better if they concentrated on people who showed early signs of ability, e.g. those who did well in maths olympiads. There is also the Personal Genome Project http://www.personalgenomes.org/ with more general aims which is being conducted in a way that has a better chance of success. 33. layman says: Indeed, no teaching is one of the main perks institutions overseas can offer (there are many others). It is not that US institutions are not trying, 99% of them just cant make attractive enough offers. Most people prefer to have a slightly lower salary than to have to teach every semester. “I don’t see how twistors aren’t a truly fundamental idea, it’s one of the bases for the modern work on amplitudes, every bit as significant as the string theory-related advances that many of the FPP winners got their prizes for” Twistors is simply a ”notational” tool (i.e. kinematical) there is nothing truly deep about this. Hawking’s semi-classical computation is deep, far-reaching, and very truly important. 34. Thomas Larsson says: For those who don’t think that work done during the 1980s is recent, consider this: In this excerpt of the will, Alfred Nobel dictates that his entire remaining estate should be used to endow “prizes to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit to mankind.” Seems to me that pretty much every Nobel winner was disqualified, except perhaps Rubbia and van der Meer, and Bednorz and Müller. 35. Shantanu says: Peter and others, something OT/old news. Found the videos the conference Cosmo 2013 in Cambridge. http://www.ctc.cam.ac.uk/activities/cosmo2013/programme.php In particular the talk by John Ellis, in which he argued that the Planck data supports Starobinsky model of inflation which begs for supersymmetry. shantanu 36. Mitchell Porter says: “layman” said “Twistors is simply a ”notational” tool (i.e. kinematical) there is nothing truly deep about this.” It’s just an accident that they gave us the twistor string and the amplituhedron? 37. Peter Woit says: layman, The idea that twistors are just a notational innovation is very funny. You seem to be arguing that major prizes can’t go to new ideas about “kinematics”, which I guess would explain why Einstein was never awarded a Nobel for special relativity. Interesting to see that the young prize winners have gone from making twice as much as people in the US to taking less money in exchange for having to teach less. From experience, I think anyone who insists on never teaching is making a big mistake. Teaching a subject is the best way of really understanding it deeply. 38. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says: An absolute requirement for determining heritability of a complex trait is controlling for variance. Soliciting DNA from a bunch of math whizzes does not strike me as a particularly effective sampling protocol. If by “not crazy” Rothberg means “compared to wiping my backside with my surplus of$100 bills” I suppose that would be accurate enough. While basic statistics seems to have failed Dr. Tegmark here, I bet he could calculate the odds that there exists a copy of himself that stumbles on the “math gene” by pure chance on some branch of the wavefunction.

39. Peter Orland says:

“An absolute requirement for determining heritability of a complex trait is controlling for variance. Soliciting DNA from a bunch of math whizzes does not strike me as a particularly effective sampling protocol.”

Indeed. It a was notion Einstein and other twentieth-century humanists had deep disdain for.

40. Pawl says:

(a) The notion that “many of Penrose’s results are in collaboration with Hawking” is at best highly misleading. It was Penrose who was, far and away, most responsible for the development of the deep geometry of causal structure, including the first singularity theorem. Penrose’s results completely transformed the way people thought of the field. Hawking really came along later.

(b) It’s evident that the prizes have been awarded in a remarkably narrow way, and this really makes one wonder what the Selection Committee’s perspective on physics is.

41. Peter Orland says:

I meant to write:

Indeed. It also a was notion Einstein and other twentieth-century humanists had deep disdain for.

42. Simple biologist says:

“An absolute requirement for determining heritability of a complex trait is controlling for variance. Soliciting DNA from a bunch of math whizzes does not strike me as a particularly effective sampling protocol.”

The whole idea is ridicilous, but the quoted part isn’t really problematic. There exists already plentiful amount of sequenced human genomes and the number is growing. Majority (almost all?) of it is availeable on free and publicly availeable databases. No need for bigger sampling protocol.

They could always just sequence math wizards and use “normal” sequenced genomes from other sources for control and variance.

43. Armin Nikkhah Shirazi says:

In response to my list above, some people have pointed out that the contributions of most of the people on the list had either not been recent or significant enough to merit the FPP. At first, I was not going to protract a discussion of this issue because comparing scientists’ achievements is an awkward business of dubious taste, but “Layman”‘s claim that “.. nobody came up with a single name of a clearly more deserving FPP laureate than the existing ones” is so unbelievably pompous that I feel it cannot stand without a detailed, evidence-based rebuttal.
Before I give my rebuttal, I want to emphasize that I mean in no way to belittle the FPP laureate’s distinguished achievements, I only want to show that “Layman”‘s claim, besides being unbelievably arrogant, may be shown by evidence to be false.
The 2013 FPP Laureate is Alexander Polyakov. His citation reads:
“for his many discoveries in field theory and string theory including the conformal bootstrap, magnetic monopoles, instantons, confinement/de-confinement, the quantization of strings in non-critical dimensions, gauge/string duality and many others. His ideas have dominated the scene in these fields during the past decades.”
The contrapositive of the claim by David M., Phillip Gibbs and “Layman” is that Polyakov deserved the FPP because unlike any (or most) of the people on the list, his achievements were 1) sufficiently recent and/or 2) sufficiently significant.

Let us test for recency:
The first relevant work on conformal bootstraps of which I am aware seems to be
Polyakov, A.M., “Non-Hamiltonian approach to conformal quantum field theory” Soviet Physics JETP, Vol. 39, p.10 (1974)
The first relevant work on magnetic monopoles of which I am aware seems to be
Polyakov, A.M., “Particle spectrum in quantum field theory”, Journal of Experimental and Theoretical Physics Letters, Vol. 20, p.194 (1974)
The first relevant work on instantons of which I am aware seems to be
Belavin, A.A., Polyakov, A.M., Schwartz A.S. , Tyupkin, Yu. S. , “Pseudoparticle solutions of the Yang-Mills equations”, Physics Letters B, Vol. 59, p. 85 (1975)
The first relevant work on quark confinement/de-confinement of which I am aware seems to be
Polyakov, A.M. “Quark Confinement and topology of gauge theories”, Nuclear Physics B, Vol. 120, 3, p. 429 (1977)
The first relevant work on the quantization of strings in non-critical dimensions of which I am aware seems to be
Polyakov A.M. “Quantum geometry of bosonic strings”, Physics Letters N, Vol. 103, p. 207 (1981)
The first relevent work on gauge/string duality of which I am aware seems to be
Polyakov A.M. “String Representations and hidden symmetries for gauge fields”, Physics Letters B, Vol. 82, p. 247 (1979)

Phillip Gibbs gave no cutoff threshold for recency, David M. gave one of 30 years, “Layman” gave (indirectly) one of 20 years. The most recent of the above publications is 32 years old. The others are all pre-1980’s.

Let us now turn our attention to significance. This is a highly contentious matter because it is so subjective. Different people have different criteria for significance, and unless everyone agrees on the same set of criteria, there will be endless discussion without resolution. We are scientists not philosophers, so I think we should confine ourselves to the one criterion that is entirely uncontroversial in terms of determining the value of a fundamental idea in science: Whether it has been empirically confirmed. If anyone thinks that there exists a more important criterion in the evaluation of a fundamental scientific idea than empirical confirmation, you are welcome to make your case.
Let me now ask the following questions:
1) Has the conformal bootstrap been empirically confirmed?
2) Have t Hooft-Polyakov monopoles been empirically shown to exist?
3) Have BPST instantons been empirically shown to exist?
4) Have quantized or any other kinds of strings been empirically shown to exist?

Compare this now to the following questions (remember, we are treating this apart from recency):
1) Has QED been empirically confirmed?
2) Have quarks been empirically shown to exist?
2) Has the CMB been empirically confirmed?
4) Has the Aharonov-Bohm been empirically confirmed?

I think this is sufficient to demonstrate just how ludicrous “Layman”‘s above claim is, but I doubt that he will concede because it is quite clear to me that he did not arrive at this position because of any evidence but because he has an emotional commitment to the position he holds. One encounters this most often in political and religious debates, and (thankfully) less often in scientific debates. A hallmark of people who argue in the absence of supporting evidence is that they resort to various fallacies, such as
1. Ad hominem (“Many of the other comments here reflect deep ignorance of what is going on.”)
2. Innuendo (“I hope that the standards you apply when you do research are slightly higher”)
3. Obfuscation by Introduction of irrelevant considerations (“Layman”‘s fields medalist “Argument”)
4. Misrepresentation (“Twistors is simply a ”notational” tool”).
However, “Layman” did give one correct argument. He correctly pointed out my typo, that it is ADM, not ABM and I thank him for that. I just wished he would make giving substantive arguments the rule instead of the exception.

44. Yatima says:

Armin Nikkhah Shirazi says: [good stuff elided]

Hear, Hear!

45. lun says:

Hoping to find a “genius math gene” is, without exaggerating, a thousand times more crackpot than anything relating to the string landscape. And much more dangerous.
It really does not help that otherwise reputable scientists are willing to lend respectability to such crackpottery.
Anyone who doubts that, check out
this and
this. Or do some research on the Flynn effect.

46. layman says:

1) Has the conformal bootstrap been empirically confirmed?

Yes. It is known for some years now that the conformal bootstrap equations do
postdict the critical points of 3d Ising and He_3 and others. They also predict many new 2nd order transitions.

2) Have t Hooft-Polyakov monopoles been empirically shown to exist?

Yes. In condensed matter physics monopoles were found, of the type ‘t Hooft-Polyakov envisioned.

3) Have BPST instantons been empirically shown to exist?

Yes, long ago, for example, in 3d.

4) Have quantized or any other kinds of strings been empirically shown to exist?

No.

Note that almost all the achievements above are very well deserved and have not been already celebrated by many other major prizes.

1) Has QED been empirically confirmed?
Yes, and it is completely irrelevant to celebrate this pre-history in the 21st century. All the people responsible for this are either dead or in their 90s.

2) Have quarks been empirically shown to exist?
Yes, and the same comment as in 1) applies.

3) Yes. This should be recognized.

4) Yes, but it is too old (more than 60 years).

47. amused says:

It’s an amusing exercise to contrast the views of the people who awarded the latest round of Milner prizes with the views in the recent document “The Future of US Particle Theory: Report of the DPF Theory Panel” (arXiv:13106111) which includes a substantial fraction of string/BSM theorists among the authors. It contains a summary of significant advances in recent years (as well as predictions for where the action will be in the future) – presumably quite relevant when considering which recent developments might be worthy of a big prize.

Curiously, the dominance of string theory in the Milnor prizes is not mirrored by dominance of ST in the description of significant advances in this document… In fact it gives the impression that important advances have occurred across a range of different areas, including some obscure and unheard of ones (unheard of at least to readers of blogs, popular science magazines and the NY Times). E.g. an area called lattice gauge theory, in which, according to the document, “astounding” progress has occurred over the last decade.

It’s completely understandable though that, regardless of whatever advances have occurred in such areas, they can’t come into consideration for a prize such as Milnor’s, since it would involve honoring the contributions of people not working at or connected to Princeton, Harvard and the other few institutions to which such prize winners must belong. Giving such a prize to people outside of those institutions would be a hideous offense against the natural order of things – unthinkable!