The 2017 Breakthrough Prizes have just been announced, here are the winners and a few comments. Note that I’m leaving the usual singing of praise of the many virtues of the laureates to others, since there should soon be a lot of such stories appearing. Instead I’ll concentrate on issues that aren’t getting as much attention.
Already announced back in May, there is a special Breakthrough Prize for the LIGO collaboration: $1 million to be split by Drever, Thorne and Weiss, $2 million to be split by the other 1012 members of the LIGO collaboration. Quite likely Drever, Thorne and Weiss will get the Nobel Prize next year (the LIGO result was published too late for consideration this year). A very good thing about the Breakthrough Prize though is that it is given to the entire collaboration, with awards going to every one. They have done similar things in the past, with awards to the LHC experiments, to neutrino experiments and to the accelerating universe supernova experiments.
The Nobel Prize in Physics and most other such prizes are never awarded to a group, just (at most three) individuals. In an era of large scientific collaborations this isn’t fair, with all the recognition and prize money going to some small set of people, nothing to anyone else. I’m glad to see that, for these experimental prizes, the Breakthrough Prize has been following a different model.
The 2017 $3 million Breakthrough Prize in mathematics goes to Jean Bourgain of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. I’m not particularly familiar with his work, you’ll have to read about it elsewhere. He is a well-known figure in the math community, already a recipient of many prizes including the Fields Medal, Shaw and Crafoord prizes.
I’ve never been convinced that this mathematics $3 million prize is a good idea, since it typically goes to someone like Bourgain who, besides being an essentially randomly chosen lucky winner from a sizable pool of similarly distinguished mathematicians, already has prize money and a very well paid position with minimal responsibilities. This isn’t going to help him do better mathematics. A much better way to spend the money would be on endowing new permanent academic positions in mathematics, allowing more talented young people to have a career in mathematical research.
The philosophy behind the Breakthrough Prizes, very visible in the glitzy award ceremony (you can watch it on the National Geographic channel this evening, 10pm EST), is that scientists don’t get the kind of fame and stardom they deserve, so Milner and Zuckerberg are going to help fix this. What motivates good mathematics though is something very different, and bringing to mathematics more of the Hollywood star system is not going to improve mathematics research. In recent decades much of US society has moved to a brutal winner-take-all system. While our Silicon Valley overlords have flourished under this, I don’t think their bringing more of it to scientific research is a good idea.
While one can argue that the huge checks to mathematicians don’t have any particular negative effect, the situation in theoretical physics is quite different. Since the original laureates chosen by Milner, the yearly prizes that have gone to theorists (as opposed to the experimental prizes mentioned above) have all gone to string theorists (there was also a special prize given to Hawking). First there was Polyakov, then Green and Schwarz, and this year the $3 million Breakthrough Prize in Physics goes to three more string theorists: Joe Polchinski, Andy Strominger, and Cumrun Vafa.
In the case of string theory, I don’t think one can seriously argue that the field suffers from a lack of public attention. Mountains of hype about string theory have been produced in the last 32 years, seriously damaging the field of theoretical physics. This year’s prize adds to that mountain, with hype-ridden
citations [press materials] backing the glitzy ceremony and million dollar checks. The language tries to turn physics research Hollywood: for instance, relativity and quantum theory are “the two superstar theories of modern physics”.
Perhaps the worst aspect of these prizes and
citations [associated explanatory materials] is that they often hype and reward failed theoretical ideas: if your ideas work maybe you’ll get part of a $1 million Nobel Prize, but if they fail, as long as they’re about string theory, you’ll get part of a $3 million Breakthrough Prize. The citation [description of “Contributions”] for Strominger includes this about string theory:
Andrew Strominger played a major role in its emergence when he showed that it not only reconciles quantum mechanics with gravity, but can also contains within it the other observed particles and forces.
This refers to Strominger’s early work on Calabi-Yau compactifications, while not mentioning that this idea has never worked out.
These prizes are often awarded for ideas about the black hole information paradox, independent of whether these ideas work. Maldacena’s citation from 2012 tells us that he got the award partly for “resolving the black hole information paradox”, and the Strominger
citation [description of “Contributions”] tells us that “His work hints at a solution to the famous ‘black hole information paradox’”. Polchinski is rewarded for a
big idea, deriving from the principles of quantum mechanics: ‘firewalls’ –blizzards of high-energy particles around black holes. The existence of firewalls would signal a fault line in the foundations of physics: at least one of the two superstar theories of modern physics – relativity theory and quantum theory – would have to be incomplete at a fundamental level.
Anyone reading this is unlikely to figure out that the significance of Polchinski’s “big idea” is that it purports to show that the solution to the paradox supposedly given by Maldacena actually doesn’t work (not surprising, since it was never more than a speculation). If you’re a string theorist, you don’t actually need to solve a problem to get a prize: speculation about what the solution to a problem might be is good enough, as is finding problems with the speculations of other string theorists. This sort of thing does nothing to improve the difficult situation of current theoretical physics, quite the opposite.
Tomorrow there will be a symposium at UCSF featuring 15 minute “TED-style” talks giving “pragmatic versions” of what could be done during the next ten years. For string theory, the blurb for the talk or talks is
Medium-term goals of string theory, from resolving the paradoxes of black holes to estimating the lifetime of the universe.
After a cycle of two prizes for resolving the information paradox and then unresolving it, I suppose it’s a reasonable goal for string theorists to go through another cycle or so during the next ten years. The idea of using string theory to “estimat[e] the lifetime of the universe” anytime soon goes beyond any of the usual hype, so we’ll have to see what that’s about tomorrow.
Update: Smaller $100,000 “New Horizons” prizes, some split in various ways, went to 6 theoretical physicists (Asimina Arvanitaki, Peter Graham, Surjeet Rajendran, Simone Gombi, Xi Yin and Frans Pretorius) and 4 mathematicians (Mohammed Abouzaid, Hugo Duminil-Copin, Ben Elias and Geordie Williamson). Congratulations to all, especially to the Columbia contingent (Mohammed is a faculty member now, Ben was a grad student here, and TA one year for my representation theory course).
Update: Some of the language quoted above as part of the citations for the string theory awards was actually in a separate section of materials distributed to the press called “Contributions”, which gave more specifics of what the award was being made for. I’ve changed the wording above to more accurately reflect this.
Update: Just watched the Breakthrough Prize ceremony on TV. Very nice short portrait of Jean Bourgain and his work, and remarks by him. The string theorists were right at the end, and the DVR cut off in the middle of a clip of outrageous hype from them (I guess the ceremony went slightly longer than scheduled).
Update: Nature has coverage of the prizes here, emphasizing the award to Polchinski for firewalls, with some justification from Milner.
Update: Livestream of the symposium is here. Polchinski and Strominger will be talking about black hole information paradox/string theory, Vafa will describe “a research program for putting rigorous bounds on the lifetime of our universe, by studying the range of possibilities permitted by the laws of string theory.”