# 2015 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics

The prize was awarded (by the actor who played Stephen Hawking), in a Hollywood-style awards ceremony (see here) to the 51 members of the two teams responsible for the supernova data showing that the universe is accelerating, with the 2011 Nobel Prize Winners (Perlmutter, Schmidt and Riess) specifically cited as the leaders. I gather the 51 people split the $3 million, so each get around$60K. This is interestingly different than the previous prizes, which mostly went to a small number of string theorists for research that hasn’t worked out very well (my prediction of an award to Polchinski, the runner-up for the past two years, was quite wrong). I’m quite curious what caused the change of policy here. The only previous prize for experimental work in physics was a special award for the Higgs discovery, and that went to the experiment spokespersons, not to all the physicists involved (which was controversial at the time).

Anyway, quite interesting and surprising, kind of an about face from theory to experiment, and from rewarding just leaders to recognizing full collaborations.

Update: More here. It seems that the $3 million is not split equally among everyone involved, but that half goes to each of the two teams, and for each team, one third of their winnings goes to their leaders (all to Perlmutter in one case, split equally by Riess and Schmidt in the other). Video from the ceremony here. Update: For more details about the ceremony, there’s Vanity Fair. I had heard that relatively few actual scientists were getting invited (and no one really wanted to hear from the mathematicians…). It does seem that a big motivation here is to bring Silicon Valley guys and Hollywood/music biz women together for a party: Christina Aguilera, who performed during the event, also noticed a difference between tech types and her entertainment-industry colleagues: “Through Yuri, I’ve been hanging out with the Google guys, Facebook guys. I find them all to be so down to earth. It’s really refreshing.” Unlikely duos chatted over a dinner of lasagna and chicken by the French Laundry’s Thomas Keller. Aguilera conversed with Twitter C.E.O. Dick Costolo. Elon Musk and Kate Beckinsale were instantly alight in each other’s company. This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. ### 22 Responses to 2015 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics 1. Navneeth says: Typo in the title. 2. Peter Woit says: Navneeth, Thanks, fixed. I hope the topics in 2105 will be different. 3. Bernhard says: Since the prize was not split between the collaboration, in what sense has the prize been given to “to the 51 members of the two teams”? It seems to be the same BS of awarding the spokespersons, just as the Nobel. 4. Peter Woit says: Bernhard, My understanding is that all the members of the two teams are officially recipients and do get a share of the money (each team splits whatever is left of half, after a third goes to their leaders). Only the three leaders though I think get to dress up and meet the Hollywood stars who hand out the prize. 5. Bernhard says: Hi Peter, Ah OK, I jumped the gun. So, around 40k each. Not bad. 6. Kuas says: I wonder how the vote associated with the prize will be split up. Obviously having 51 experimentalist laureates voting on the next winner could cause some problems if they were not de-weighted. 7. Peter Woit says: Kuas, Already if you look at the Selection Committee for this year, of the 7 LHC experimentalists given a prize last year, only three are now on the selection committee, so there’s already some selection effect against experimentalists. In this case, I assume they just allow the three leaders to be on the committee, the rest don’t qualify. I’m quite curious though what caused the big change in policy this year in the type of award. Seems unlikely it was just the 3/15 experimentalists, but who knows. It seems quite possible that either Milner or the string theorists themselves finally realized that a prize of this kind always going to string theorists was not good for its credibility. Whoever you are, if you’re giving out prizes, you want to award prizes to people who will increase your own credibility, not reduce it… 8. Don Jennings says: Just speculating, but I’ve been pretty surprised that the$3m recipients seem to have used only a negligible fraction of their new wealth to support anybody else doing physics. Perhaps if Milner too had been expecting to see some secondary philanthropy, he’s now decided to just cut out the disappointingly greedy middle-men.

9. Bernhard says:

Don Jennings,

Yes, and we should specially quote some spokespersons who said would their money to finance the poor postdocs and students but never did. I guess in the end mortgage is more important than the Higgs.

10. Bernhard says:

*that would use their money*

11. JD M says:

On an unrelated piece of news, George Zweig won this year’s J. J. Sakurai prize:
<a href="http://www.aps.org/programs/honors/prizes/prizerecipient.cfm?last_nm=Zweig&first_nm=George&year=2015&quot; title="2015 J.J. Sakurai Prize for Theoretical Particle Physics Recipient"

12. mateo says:

Eagerly awaiting your take on the latest Higgs hubbub!

13. Curious says:

Can you elaborate on “and no one really wanted to hear from the mathematicians…”?

14. Peter Woit says:

mateo,
Best ignored, seems to be non-news. Maybe someday there will be exciting news about the Higgs if the LHC measurements of its properties show something unexpected. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened.

15. Eric Weinstein says:

Well, I can assure you that even mathematicians in the heart of Silicon Valley are not on the radar. I wouldn’t read too much into that. Give it time and see what happens. They are finding their way. This is a particular crowd (so far), but they are trying to do some good. It would be very surprising if they got it nailed down straight out of the gate.

16. Nicholas Suntzeff says:

Although the teams were officially recognized in the Breakthrough Award, we were not invited to the ceremony. In the case of the Gruber Prize, the team was generically awarded but our names were not listed individually (except for Saul and Brian). However, we were invited to a simple and elegant ceremony hosted by Martin Rees at Trinity College Cambridge, which was wonderful for the teams. For the Breakthrough Prize, our names are listed but we were not invited. I know that Brian Schmidt made a number of appeals to the organizers that it is wrong not to have the teams there, but they did not agree. It is not as if there was not space – it was in a blimp hanger after all!

Brian and I co-founded the High Z Team in 1994, after the Calan/Tololo Survey had proven that Type Ia supernovae could be calibrated to 6% distances. He and I made two rules: (1) each six months a new subgroup based on university or observatory location of us would get the recent data, and the whole group would work in support of that subgroup, and (2) the person who was the intellectual force behind any particular paper would be first author. With those rules we had no problems of authorship and responsibility, and not surprisingly almost all the papers were first authored by a grad student or postdoc. So the University of Washington (Stubbs, Reiss, and Diercks) had the data the semester before UC Berkeley with Riess and Filippenko got new data.

What these prizes don’t seem to understand that most science is done by teams, and at least in astronomy, the teams are often creative anarchies. Brian was elected our leader after one year of both of us co-leading, and deserves to be recognized as our leader. Adam was first author on the discovery paper, and without his dedication and brilliant work, our paper would not have been published in time with the SCP. But, if you took away many of the single members of our team, we would not have made this discovery as quickly as we did, if at all. Thus, the team needs to recognized as a team. Both the Gruber and the Breakthrough Prize went partially in this direction, but not completely.

My hope is that as the Breakthrough Prize evolves, the idea of a team of equals with different talents working together, becomes more understood by those who have no idea of what doing science is.

17. CPV says:

Rich people generally believe that, upon reflection, what made them rich is their own unique gift. Team prizes don’t fit that narrative. When they give back it’s almost always in a reflected glory sense. There are exceptions, but not many. So, the giving will be in ways to find or assist those with unique gifts like their own. I think you could argue that people with immense gifts don’t really need anyone’s help on average, and that one should look down the ladder for people to help. Gates has done a good job with this, mostly.

18. emkajot says:

@CPV
I very much recommend reading Gladwell’s “The Outliers” for a completely different perspective on how some people with immense gifts succeed (and many others don’t). Gates is actually discussed as an example.

19. vzn says:

lol “nobody wanted to hear from the mathematicians”…. :'(
you gave a link for the televised stanford event featuring the mathematicians.
wonder if that is archived anywhere? really hope it is. has anyone seen it?
more commentary on breakthrough prizes 2014 (last yr)

20. Peter Woit says:

vzn,
While I saw some of the streamed talks, it looks like they are not now available. Presumably they will at some point appear on the breakthroughprize.org site. When that happens I’ll probably take a look at some of what I missed, and link to them from here.

21. Bernhard says:

Nicholas Suntzeff,

I very much agree with you. What is troubling about these prizes is that they are supposed to be a channel to make scientists be recognized by the rest of the society. People working in big science are very much aware how a huge collaborative work each paper is, but outside this bubble this is alien culture. What these prizes do when crowning the leaders is to actually diminish the group’s efforts even more, IMO. People will acknowledge what they can see – if they see the leaders these are the one’s who will get ALL the attention from the outside world no matter how many footnotes people write saying the work was actually a collaborative effort,

22. Davide Castelvecchi says:

This whole thing reminds me of the party at Peter Gregory’s mansion in the Silicon Valley sitcom 🙂