Various News

Later tonight will be the 2016 Breakthrough Prize ceremony, broadcast live on the National Geographic channel. While mathematicians and physicists are getting their popcorn ready, waiting to find out which of their colleagues will be $3 million richer, they might want to check out Mathematics Without Apologies, where Michael Harris is writing about his experience on the red carpet at last year’s ceremony. In other news:

  • A few miles down the road from the event tonight at the NASA Ames Center, the Stanford Institute for Theoretical Physics has a new website. They have various videos you can watch, as well as this account of the history of the SITP:

    The gauge hierarchy problem was first addressed in the earliest days of SITP by Susskind and Dimopoulos, whose ideas eventually led to the introduction of supersymmetry into particle physics. The gauge hierarchy problem and the discovery experimental discovery of supersymmetry were principle reasons for the building of the Large Hadron Collider, but the puzzle remains. To this day Dimopoulos and his band of young postdocs and students have offered the most exciting proposals for discovering new physics in this area.

    Personally, I thought the Higgs was the principal reason for the LHC, but perhaps I was misinformed.

  • Several people wrote to tell me about a USA Today article reporting Study may have found evidence of alternate, parallel universes, noting that this needed a new installment of This Week’s Hype. I’m very pleased to see that the excellent science journalist Jennifer Ouellette has been on the case, debunking this much better than I ever could. The blame for this kind of thing is jointly shared by physicists and journalists, glad to see that at least some journalists are taking action to deal with the problem.
  • There have also been several suggestions that I write about Leo Kadanoff, the great theoretical physicist who passed away a little while ago at the age of 78. Unfortunately I never met him, and only had a general acquaintance with his work. A very good obituary by Kenneth Chang did appear in the New York Times.
  • I’ve also heard from lots of people with more stories about the Khrzhanovsky film about Landau described here. It seems that I’m the only one who didn’t know about this. In other performing arts/physics news, Lee Smolin discusses here a project he has been involved in.
  • The LHC has finished its 2015 run colliding protons at 13 TeV, will now turn to heavy ion physics. Integrated luminosity recorded by ATLAS and CMS is about 4 inverse femtobarns. Results of the analysis of this data may start to be available publicly around the time of Moriond in March. Consulting Jester to see what to expect, it looks like better limits on or evidence for stops, Z-primes and gluinos should be available. In particular, we’ll finally see a conclusive test of string theory (Gordon Kane argues that string theory predicts a 1.5 TeV gluino, see here).
  • In other news from the LHC, it seems that humanity narrowly missed a major problem back in August, when Simon Parkes, a Labour town councillor for Whitby in North Yorkshire, foiled a sinister plot by the Illuminati to “use the LHC to open an evil portal that would allow them to become more powerful.”

Update: Awards ceremony hasn’t started, but names are out: Ian Agol for mathematics, 5 teams of 1300 people for neutrino oscillations (with 7 specifically identified, including the 2 winners of this year’s physics Nobel).

Junior recipients in math are Larry Guth and Andre Neves, in physics Bogdan Bernevig, Liang Fu, Xiao-Liang Qi, Raphael Flauger, Leonardo Senatore, and Yuji Tachikawa.

Update: The big news, via Michael Harris, is that Peter Scholze (to my mind a better mathematician than any of those who got prizes) turned down a $100,000 prize. Good for him.

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29 Responses to Various News

  1. John says:

    That Illuminati link is a bit scary. I would suggest a global meditation session to defeat them ASAP. Just hope they don’t turn it on at 3am again like last time, or we’re screwed.

  2. Bill says:

    Whoever guesses Breakthrough Prize laureates before 10/9c gets a gift certificate from Peter worth 10 off-topic comments.

  3. Peter Woit says:

    Sorry, no such offer. If you are not guessing but do know the winners, if you let us know early, maybe I’ll go for one off-topic comment (unless I get legal advice that that’s problematic as a valuable bribe…).

  4. Bill says:

    It is possible that I’ve met some of the winners in real life but I don’t know who the winners are at this moment, so would have to guess: Yitang Zhang for math, and Maxim Kontsevich for life sciences.

    It seems like Michael Harris knows something. From his blog: “And something tells me (just this morning) that this year’s ceremony will be more interesting than I had anticipated.”

  5. MSZ says:

    No need to guess …

    The 2016 Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics to be Awarded to Ian Agol; The 2016 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences to be Awarded to Five Individual Recipients: Edward S. Boyden, Karl Deisseroth, John Hardy, Helen Hobbs, and Svante Pääbo; The 2016 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics to be Awarded to Seven Leaders and 1370 Members of Five Experiments Investigating Neutrino Oscillation: Daya Bay (China); KamLAND (Japan); K2K / T2K (Japan); Sudbury Neutrino Observatory (Canada); and Super-Kamiokande (Japan)

  6. gg says:

    Peter: I’m not a particle physicist and was a young graduate student at the time SSC was cancelled and LHC moved forward. My (vague) recollection is that the attitude at the time was that the Higgs would still show up at the Tevatron, and that SSC/LHC would fry bigger fish.

  7. Peter Woit says:

    The Tevatron never had much of a chance at the Higgs. Depending on mass, it had a chance at barely seeing evidence for it, not much more. From the beginning, the Higgs was the main aim of the SSC and LHC. The text I quoted gives some insight into how some theorists at Stanford see the world.

  8. Danny Calegari says:

    Your comment that Peter Scholze is “a better mathematician than any of those who got prizes” seems churlish, whatever your views on the value of the Breakthrough Prizes. Mathematicians have many different styles. For example, some are theory builders, others are problem-solvers. Ian Agol, as well as being a close personal friend, is one of the most gifted problem-solvers I’ve ever met. I’m delighted to see his wonderful contributions to mathematics made more visible to the wider public as a result of this award.

  9. Peter Woit says:

    Yes, there are many different kinds of mathematicians with many different styles, and no linear ordering makes any sense. No criticism of Agol or the other winners was intended. I know none of their work very well, they all seem to be quite good at what they do. It’s also true though that I suspect one could have identified a hundred other mathematicians just as talented and accomplished as those three and I don’t see why the math community should take these prizes seriously.

    I’ve edited what I wrote slightly to make it clear that I was expressing my own opinion and personal idiosyncratic judgement. Before this, based on what I understood of Scholze’s work I had a high opinion of him as a mathematician. With his decision to turn down the money and, I hear, basically make no public comment, ignore these people and go about his work, I now have a very high opinion of him as a human being. Instead of the usual congratulations and singing of the virtues of the prize winners and their new-found wealth, I think the math community tonight would do well to instead congratulate Peter Scholze for embodying its best qualities.

  10. Mateo says:

    60 minutes had a piece tonight (new I think) on the LHC. Sounded to me like the potential for extra dimension and dark matter findings were being oversold in terms of the LHC but what do I know. Thought I’d provide the link in case Peter would like to comment:

  11. John Baldwin says:

    I haven’t yet decided how I feel about these awards, but I’d be interested to hear Scholze talk about his decision to refuse the award rather than to, say, use it to support struggling mathematicians in need of funding, or help a public library on the verge of closing, or donate it to a charity whose mission is to help relieve actual human suffering. I’d like a glimpse into Scholze’s moral calculus.

  12. math_lambda says:

    @ John Baldwin : on paper what you say might make sense, but on the other hand the celebrity circus is such an insane thing, coming there would be condoning it, and apparently Scholze didn’t want to. He’s a tenured professor at Bonn when he could have a very high salary in the US, and you could make the same “moral calculus” remark for that. Never met him, but my guess is money and fame are the least of his worries, a respectable choice indeed.

  13. mh says:

    @John Baldwin.
    Scholze is a mathematician. He has no moral obligation to become a philanthropist and he has no moral obligation to justify his refusal. He is doing science a great service by just ignoring this circus.

  14. Bill says:

    First of all, I think it will be difficult to identify 100 or even 10 mathematicians whose work was at the level of Ian Agol in the last 10 years. No matter what one thinks about these awards, he is not a bad choice.

    As for Peter Scholze, would he have rejected the main prize? I feel (as he might have felt) that his work is worth more than junior prize, so he did the right thing. I am sure he will accept the Fields medal in 3 years.

  15. iv says:

    There appears to be a clear political agenda behind the Breakthrough Prize in Physics this year. Nima, Witten and Gross etc. want to push the Great Collider project in China led by Wang Yifan — the leader of the Daya Bay neutrino experiment. But Wang needs the appropriate status to convince the Chinese government to invest in this extremely expensive project. The rule for the Breakthrough Prize is to have the past winners to nominate the future ones, so Nima et al. can get this strange combination of neutrino experiments to share this prize so that Wang can get the international recognition that he needs. ~1000 people to cover this political move, wow!

  16. Peter Woit says:

    I’m not saying at all that Agol was a bad choice, just that there would be very many equally good choices, for both prizes.

    I doubt that Scholze’s reason for turning down the prize was that it wasn’t good enough. Michael Harris on his blog points out that by doing this Scholze removes himself from likely consideration for the \$3 million, which he otherwise would be a very strong candidate for. So, in effect, he’s turning down \$3.1 million.

    I just watched some of the taped awards show, and it’s very clear why one might feel it was worth at least $100K to not participate. The Fields Medal is something rather different.

  17. Bill says:


    On second thought I agree with you about Peter Scholze. The format of these awards treats scientists as expensive escorts to a costume party so, whatever his thought process was, he deserves a lot of respect. I wonder if previous winners have regrets now that the prize lost “some of its luster and legitimacy” (in the words of Michael Harris).

  18. David Ben-Zvi says:

    Independently of the hoopla, it seems clear Agol’s work deserves all the recognition it’s getting — I recommend Danny’s blog
    for a discussion of one of the most spectacular breakthroughs.

  19. rc123 says:

    Even though you seem to understand that no classificatory move is possible, it seem (at least to me) very rude to dismiss brilliant mathematicians who have gone on to do remarkable work as somewhat “worse than Scholze”. As you have said so, you don’t comprehend Agol’s work in topology or Nevé’s work in differential geometry, so why bother making such remark knowing it can be offensive (I’m not saying that was your intent)?

  20. Christopher Herzog says:

    My objection to these prizes is that the biggest winners are the U.S. and other federal governments. The prize winners, assuming they don’t turn around and donate their winnings to charity, will all have to pay a sizable chunk of their winnings to the IRS (or its equivalent in other countries). Why not take the same money and do what for example Simons or Howard Hughes do? Set up a foundation. Involve some scientists to do peer review. Issue grants that will fund your favorite kind of research, research you presumably already think that the government is not doing enough to support?

  21. Peter Woit says:

    On the whole I think that “this mathematician or physicist is better (or worse) than that one” is a judgment best avoided, for the obvious reasons that different talents, accomplishments, and different areas of mathematics are not really easily comparable this way, and that of course, anyone’s knowledge is limited, so humility is in order. I think if you look at the thousands of pages I’ve written on this blog, you will find that such judgments are expressed extremely rarely (although I’m not unwilling to write something because some may find it offensive).

    In this case though, I thought it important to point out that, of the four people awarded prizes, Scholze was not a random one, but widely considered by those who know him and his work to be the most talented young mathematician to come around in quite a while. His refusal of the money seems to have gotten zero attention in the press, partly probably because they know nothing about who he is.

    I don’t know Agol personally, but I’d be surprised if he was particularly upset and offended that Peter Woit thought Peter Scholze was more talented than him. And if he does feel that way, he has $3 million to make himself feel better…

  22. Shantanu says:

    Peter and others,
    Yours truly is one of the 1300 winners (although they have spelled my first name wrong) on the website. let’s see though how much share of the prize I get 🙂

  23. Peter Woit says:



  24. Rompety Rabbit says:

    Interesting that this “hoopla” will be on the National Geographic channel, even while
    a news item from today is about the impending destruction of that once great organization:
    (cited on

    Surely the new National Geographic will want to reach this demographic:

    Christopher Hertzog makes a comment which must be far too sensible in the age of Trump:
    “Why not take the same money and do what for example Simons or Howard Hughes do? Set up a foundation. Involve some scientists to do peer review. Issue grants that will fund your favorite kind of research, research you presumably already think that the government is not doing enough to support?”

    Why not? Maybe because that would take actual intelligence and wisdom?

  25. Pingback: 2016 Breakthrough Prizes | Not Even Wrong

  26. Peter Woit says:

    Please direct further comments about the Breakthrough Prize to the next posting

    I’ve moved the latest comment there.

  27. gadfly says:

    I feel like Scholze should have accepted the prize and given it to charity or something…

  28. Avattoir says:

    Or, Gadfly, at least to the next posting.

    There’s much to admire about Professor Woit, including his periodic posting of drafts of his text-in-progress. There’s an unexpected, for me, example from this thread. When several commenters attacked him for, as one called it, appearing (I think worse than that was implied, at least by some others.) “churlish”. Yet Woit didn’t react with anything remotely like the peevishness that usually accompanies churlishness, instead showing restraint, indulgence & patience in making his points again & in various ways. Soon at least a few of those who’d attacked him indicated they’d turned & had come to agree with him. One doesn’t see that in many blogger-monitored websites. However, since this comment is “off topic”, admonishment should follow, correct? It’s like a test.

  29. Peter Woit says:

    Thanks, I’m not completely immune to flattery, so, no admonishment.

    The questions at issue about the mathematics prize I think are quite interesting, and I hope I can have some effect in getting people to think about them. Danny Calegari’s comment I didn’t take as an “attack”, he was expressing a reasonable view which I can understand and I’m sure is widely shared. Whenever prizes like this are announced, in private people may express “so and so is better” judgments, but there are good reasons not to do this in public, since such judgments often are, well, “churlish” is a good word.

    And yes, this discussion should be in the next posting, but I don’t want to encourage more of it in either location.

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