- There will be an awards ceremony November 8 for the 2016 Breakthrough Prizes, hosted by Seth MacFarlane, and airing live on the National Geographic Channel, later to run on FOX. The next day at Berkeley there will be a Breakthrough Prize Symposium, featuring talks by the winners and others.
In physics the prizes to be awarded include the big $3 million prize and up to three $100,000 prizes for young researchers. The symposium physics schedule lists as speakers “2016 Breakthrough Prize Laureates”, with the plural perhaps a hint that more than one person will be sharing the $3 million. The first three rounds of these mostly went to string theorists but there seems to have been some sort of policy change last year (the award went to Supernova observations indicating an accelerating cosmology). I have no idea at all who they’ll choose this year. The theorist speakers discussing the future of the subject at the symposium are Arkani-Hamed, Hall and Bousso, a clean sweep for multiverse mania.

On the mathematics side, there’s also a $3 million prize and up to three $100,000 prizes. The symposium schedule lists “2016 Breakthrough Prize Laureate”, so maybe a hint there’s just one in math.

- In other news on the prize front, the APS will now be awarding a Medal for Exceptional Achievement in Research, with the first one going to Edward Witten.
- The Wall Street Journal has published a response to the Gross/Witten piece advocating a Chinese “Great Collider”. Physicist Jonathan Katz describes particle physics as a “dying”, “moribund” subject. He argues that research funding should go to “tabletop experiments”, like for instance the ones he does.
- The new AMS Notices is out, with a piece by Loring Tu on the origin of the theorem due to Atiyah-Bott often known as the Woods Hole Fixed Point Theorem. Tu does a great job of explaining this beautiful mathematics, as well as the details of the controversy over Shimura’s role in sparking this by a conjecture. He doesn’t much discuss Shimura’s memoir, which I wrote about here, which includes the claim that Serre attacked him out of jealousy about Shimura’s conjecture. I’ve never really understood Shimura’s point of view on this, since usually mathematicians value theorems over conjectures, and it is clearly Atiyah-Bott who had the theorem here.
- From David Mumford’s blog I learned about an experimental neurobiology paper co-authored by Atiyah. It is quite interesting, but even more interesting is the blog entry by Mumford that it inspired. Mumford is one of the greats of algebraic geometry, and he gives a fascinating characterization of the different sorts of ways in which mathematicians pursue research. Mathematics done at the highest level involves strikingly different personalities and research strategies, which Mumford characterizes as four different tribes: “explorers”, “alchemists”, “wrestlers” and “detectives”. If you’re at all interested in how mathematics research is done, this is highly recommended reading.
- Also recommended, if you’re interested in the overlap of physics and philosophy, is a new piece by Massimo Pigliucci on String Theory vs. the Popperazi.

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The part of the Atiyah’s paper I found interesting is the ranking of a bunch of formulas as beautiful or ugly by mathematicians. Not surprisingly, the Euler formula ranked consistently as the most beautiful. But the one ranked as the “ugliest” was the Hardy-Ramnanujan formula for calculation of pi. I know it has strange, seemingly random constants, but I consider these as the essence of its beauty, not ugliness. I think one cannot talk about mathematical beauty without also considering what is ugly. My guess is that there is a wider range and variation in the ugly side.

Table top experiments, yeah that sounds like a good idea.

Google ‘Jonathon Katz physicist’ to see what he is doing.

yikes

http://www.riverfronttimes.com/newsblog/2010/05/19/controversial-wash-u-prof-jonathan-katz-cut-loose-from-gulf-oil-spill-relief

It says on the website you linked to: “Each of the Breakthrough Prize laureates receives a $3 million prize, and a total of seven prizes will be awarded.”

First of all this means that the laureates don’t share one prize, but also gives more than a hint that there will be multiple winners.

Bill,

I think that info is for the first round of these awards several years ago. After those awards, now the plan is for a single $3 million award/year (one in physics, one in math).

My guess is that the prize in Mathematics will go to Yitang Zhang.

The “beauty of math” paper actually came out last year

http://www.nature.com/news/equations-are-art-inside-a-mathematician-s-brain-1.14825

About WSJ and Katz and the Chinese Great Collider, look up what Phil Anderson had to say about the SSC. For example this

http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/8688/title/The-Case-Against-the-SSC/

or this

http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=6419

See also if you can find Rustum Roy’s numerous articles/speeches against the SSC.

Ultimately the SSC projected cost ballooned to about $8.4 B and Congress pulled the plug. But that pot of money did not flow into the hands of condensed matter physicists. Instead the consequence of the SSC’s termination was a general cut in funding across all of science (or maybe just physics). Essentially, “if the HEP community can absorb an 8B loss of funding, then other areas of physics can also learn to make do with less”.

Science funding is not a zero sum game, where if money is cut from one area, it goes to another.

Regarding the Great Collider of China and other science mega-projects, I recommend Freeman Dyson’s 1988 essay “Six Cautionary Tales for Scientists” in his collection From Eros to Gaia. He there describes how the internal ecology of a field can be ruined by a too-large unripe Great Leap Forward project. It isn’t a question of sending the money from HEP to condensed-matter; it’s a question of distorted resource allocation within HEP itself. The essay is also a beautiful and fascinating read.

The key word/concept is “unripe”. I suppose one can say the SSC was unripe and too big of a leap forward. Who knows. It was certainly jingoistic, and that rubbed many people the wrong way. But Freeman Dyson was also unhappy about HST, advocating smaller telescopes or whatever. (See if you can find cartoons from the 1980s about the Large Space Binoculars.) Who is to determine what is too big of a leap forward? Usually only hindsight decides that.

Freeman Dyson is a good author (so is his son George). Read “Disturbing the Universe” it’s another fascinating read.

Op ed,

you’re right about science funding not being a zero-sum game*, but then building such a gigaproject with no clear vision other than “umm, maybe nature will unexpectedly throw something at us” is going to result in a backlash against all science funding in the long run.

* Although to a large part, it is. And, of course, a lot of science funding does not go to scientists. How much of the LHC budget went to construction companies?

The HST turned out to be a great thing, but the opportunity cost of it for astronomy was pretty high, especially given all the problems it had leading to extra delay and expense. Once a project like that is up and running, the incremental cost per discovery is quite low–most of the costs are sunk upfront. So it makes good sense to support these projects’ continuing operation ex post, as then they are the cheap option. But one should not allow this post-investment optimality to obscure the potential pre-investment suboptimality of a project that crowds out all others in its field.

It’s probably unfair to characterize much of modern functional neuroimaging as “the new phrenology”, but studies on the vanguard of subjective experience and their voxelated correlates need to be viewed with a great deal of skepticism. It’s only very recently that we’re approaching being able to use more advanced neuroimaging to reliably diagnose devastating neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. For subtler (but not terribly subtle, really) conditions like major depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia, these techniques have essentially no value as diagnostic tools, and it’s only with considerably larger sample sizes and impeccable statistics have reproducible correlations generally survived much beyond the first reported observation.

The paper is remarkable, though. A Fields medalist senior-authoring a neuroscience article in an open-source journal? That’s an encouraging development, if nothing else. And the language…I assume Atiyah wrote the stuff that doesn’t read at all like a bioscience manuscript. I mean, it’s loads of second-hand rhapsody slathered on a base coat of anecdote, but very lovely all the same, and a damn sight more enjoyable to consume than most of what I have to slog through on a regular basis.

The WSJ has also published an essay that is down on basic science in general.

http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-myth-of-basic-science-1445613954

“The Breakthrough Prize today announced that ten-time Grammy Award winner Pharrell Williams will perform at its third annual Breakthrough Prize ceremony, held to honor the world’s top scientists and mathematicians, on Sunday, November 8 in Silicon Valley.

Williams will be joined at the exclusive ceremony by a star-studded lineup of presenters, including Academy Award winner Russell Crowe, Academy Award winner Hilary Swank, Lily Collins, and Thomas Middleditch and Martin Starr of HBO’s Silicon Valley. As previously announced, Emmy-nominated Cosmos executive producer and Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane will serve as the ceremony’s host.”