2014 Milner Prizes

Last March an Oscar-style ceremony hosted by Morgan Freeman was held in Geneva (see here) to award the 2013 $3 million Milner Prize to Princeton string theorist Alexander Polyakov. Tomorrow an even more lavish ceremony designed to turn “Oscars of Science” into instant multi-millionaires will be held in Mountain View, California (see here). It will feature Kevin Spacey, Conan O’Brien and Glenn Close, one of whom will presumably award the 2014 $3 million Milner string theory Prize to either Polchinski, Green/Schwarz, or Strominger/Vafa.

If I had to bet I’d go for Polchinski, purely because if they don’t give it to him, that will be two years in a row he walks away with a $300,000 consolation prize, and having to have him a third time up next year before getting his $3 million would be a bit silly. On the other hand, John Preskill is predicting Green/Schwarz, and he may be right. If you’re going to have a prize devoted to the idea that string theory = fundamental physics since it’s our hope for a TOE, then one really has to give it to Green/Schwarz for originating the whole superstring = TOE business.

On Friday, there will be a day-long symposium at Stanford sponsored by the Milner prize people (see here), with the $3 million man (or men) speaking at 5:30pm, introduced by Lenny Susskind.

Physics will actually be a relatively small part of this awards ceremony, since it will also include the award of six $3 million awards in the Life Sciences. These are being jointly funded by Milner and a group of other prominent internet entrepreneurs.

Update: News is that the awards ceremony will be broadcast by the Science Channel:

Hosted by actor Kevin Spacey, the awards will be presented by the Prize sponsors and by celebrities including Conan O’Brien, Glenn Close, Rob Lowe and Michael C. Hall. The event was produced and directed by Don Mischer, the producer and director of The Academy Awards among other television and live events. The world premiere special 2014 BREAKTHOUGH PRIZES will premiere on Science Channel on Monday, January 27 at 9 PM ET/PT.

According to the press release, Polchinski, Green/Schwarz or Strominger/Vafa will get $3 million for being “psychics”:

The 2014 Breakthrough Prizes are awarded to those who make major breakthroughs and contributions that represent significant advances in our fundamental knowledge of the world. At the ceremony, seven prizes (six for life sciences and one for psychics) of $3 million each will be awarded for a total of $21 million.

Update: As John Preskill predicted, the $3 million string theory prize went to Green and Schwarz. Polchinski gets a second $300,000 consolation prize and another chance next year.

Update: Vanity Fair covers the event as Hollywood Stars Gather in Silicon Valley for 2014 Breakthrough Prizes in Physics and Life Sciences.

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20 Responses to 2014 Milner Prizes

  1. paddy says:

    Will the winner “give us tongue”?

  2. M says:

    Opening the possibility of imagining D-branes here and there has been an important factor in convincing that string theory has no predictive power. This key achievement deserves more that just a few millions

  3. Thomas Larsson says:

    Whatever the lasting value of Sasha Polyakov’s contributions to string theory, the application of CFT to 2D phase transitions is experimentally confirmed and definitely prize-worthy. I have long thought that BPZ should receive a Nobel for this.

  4. Bernhard says:

    An unserious ceremony for an unserious prize. Fair enough…

  5. Hack says:

    What an utter circus! So now physicists want prizes given to them by Hollywood celebrities? Fantastic, hopefully next year the prize can be given out by Miley Cyrus who can recreate her MTV dance with the prize recipient! That or perhaps Kim-Yay (thats Kim Kardashian and Kanye for those of you living under rocks) could clear their busy schedules and to it. I don’t know that is a real toss up…

  6. tt says:

    twerk = force x distance

  7. P says:


    What you say makes no sense. Imagining a D-brane “here” or “there” is really just the statement that there are typically D-brane moduli spaces. In many cases these are, via duality, dual to the moduli spaces having to do with sets of closed string modes.

    So even if I granted your naive notions about difficulties of string theory — which themselves have issues — your argument re: D-branes making things worse is clearly wrong.


  8. M says:

    dear P,
    before 1995 the attempts of connecting physics with strings were restricted to heterotic strings compactified on some Calabi Yau. D branes expanded the (already too large) list of possible constructions. This gives new ways to search a string model that reproduces all observed physics. But, more importantly, it makes the issue irrelevant: for any observed physics there are ≈ 10^300 string models that reproduce it.

    I advise Milner to offer a prize of 10^-300 dollars for any “theory of everything”.

  9. harryb says:

    And I quote from Edward O Wilson’s new book, Letters to a Young Scientist (he being a great Life Scientist at Harvard):

    “If a subject is already receiving a great deal of attention..if its practitioners are prizewinners who receive large grants, stay away from that subject….in making your own long-term plans, be aware it is already crowded with talented people. You would be a newcomer, a private amid bemedaled first sergeants and generals. Take a subject instead that interests you, and looks promising, and where established experts are not yet conspicuously competing with one another, where few if any prizes and academy memberships have been given, and where the annals of research are not yet layered with superfluous data and mathematical models. ”

    Lets hope some look at these prizes as an end of time for ST, and aim for other paths, make their mark in other ways.

  10. P says:

    Hi M,

    Dualities between theories with branes and the heterotic string were precisely the ambiguity I was talking about.

    Two more corrections: string model is ambiguous, you should call them string vacua. Second of all — and this is what I was taking issue with — is that the large number of vacua isn’t from the D-brane moduli space (i.e. the ability to put a brane “here” or “there” as you say), it’s from the Ramond Ramond background flux utilized in moduli stabilization. So, again, the 10^large is not from the D-branes.


  11. Mitchell Porter says:

    M says

    “for any observed physics there are ≈ 10^300 string models that reproduce it”

    In our present state of knowledge, an estimate like that above, is simply a guess – a guess which could be completely wrong.

    In principle, once you choose a particular string vacuum, all the low-energy parameters become calculable. In practice, the ability to calculate such quantities is still very limited – e.g. see the opening paragraphs of this report from “String Phenomenology 2012″.

  12. Peter Woit says:

    P, M, M-P,
    Sorry, but this particular discussion is neither very interesting nor on-topic. About M-P’s claim that all the low energy parameters of physics in a string vacuum (as opposed to some very specially chosen vacuum) are in principle calculable, with a link supposedly proving this, the link in question actually has

    “in many string models, we don’t actually have enough control to calculate physical coupling constants; often an overall proportionality factor is missing, and simply assumed to be ‘of order one’ (i.e. of magnitude between about .1 and 10). I think this is a very important point; ‘string phenomenology’ as it stands is a bit of a misnomer, because as far as I know, nobody has yet been able to do an honest calculation of all quantities like masses and coupling constants in a realistic string model.”

    which reads to me more like saying things are not calculable. But, anyone who wants to argue this one way or the other will have to do it somewhere else. Mercifully, even those string enthusiasts in charge of choosing Milner prize winners don’t seem to think it’s a good idea to give them for string phenomenology.

  13. chris says:

    it is astounding what people will do for money.

  14. Zhiming Wang says:

    The prize went to Green/Schwarz after all. The Guardian.

  15. martibal says:

    Now they will do it for maths as well…. Is that great or frightening ?

    “The prize is one of a string of annual awards set up by Milner and other Silicon Valley stars to raise the profile of scientists and put them on a par – in some sense, at least – with film and sports celebrities.” That is frightening, no ?

  16. Simple biologist says:

    Looking at life science winners is depressing as well. With the exception of Alexander Varshavsky, it’s all biomedical or biotech stuff. Their definition of life science break trough appears to be application of basic research to medical or biotech uses.

    Basically they are awarding just the kind of research that Nobel prizes already cover, without the Hollywood celebs of course. Not sure why they waste all that money to compete with Nobel prizes. They could have used it to award biological fields outside the narrow scope that the chemistry and medicine Nobel prizes allow, evolutionary biology, ecology and so forth. Then again, maybe it’s better not to have this ridiculous hype.

  17. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    I would like to thank tt for something to laugh about. The rest is pretty depressing.

  18. jd says:

    I find all these discussions about prizes, awards, and such very depressing. This severe sickness in the sciences and in our society does need to be discussed but I usually leave that to others. But today I do have a couple of thoughts. An APS Fellow I know, once pointed out to me that to become a fellow, or receive a prize, or award, or honor does not mean that you received it for your talent, skill, accomplishments. It means a good campaign was waged. This is true for science, the Academy Awards, the US presidential race, and the list goes on. Notice that after someone wins the presidency the analyses are not about whether the best person won but is on how the winner had the best campaign. In this blog before the Nobels were announced this year it was mention that campaigns were in progress, not necessarily by the candidates but by their supporters. I know of one Nobel prize winner who went around Europe and somehow got various national legislative bodies to pass do nothing bills in support of him for the prize. This was years ago. He got the prize in spite of the letters written by a number of prominent people in his field urging that the bills be ignored. I know of a US institution of international reputation that wanted to hire a certain researcher and promised that, if he came, they and their professors would throw their weight behind him for the Nobel. It is debatable that his work was of that caliber, but he did get the prize. This all is embarrassing, depressing, and in the long run hurts science and society. The argument has been made that maybe the money, the “honor,” may encourage bright young people to go into science. I ask whether that would have made a difference to any of you? If it does, then obviously you made a mistake. I personally knew, in years past, of young people, some bright, that dropped out of physics after their PhD’s because they felt that the field had changed and no longer could offer them that solid, interesting, career in teaching and research. Most of them went into medicine, law, and finance where, if money is your motivation, that is where the real money is. As for myself, so you know, I have not received any honors of any import. Years ago I had a superior and a coworker each separately offer to put me up for fellow. I thanked them and told them no, that the offer was enough honor. I looked over the current fellows and did not want to be associated with most of them. It really was not an honor. I am not at all comparing myself with Perelman, he is far, far beyond me. But I do admire his integrity with respect to prizes, at least as far as I have read in articles. And for those that take his decisions as a slam against them, so be it. Maybe they should look within themselves.

  19. Noah Smith says:

    Milner prize = most lavish consolation prize ever

  20. einstein says:

    I hope Terence Tao win Milner prize 2014