Physics Frontiers Prize

Yuri Milner’s Fundamental Physics Prize Foundation announced today the process by which future winners of the $3 million Fundamental Physics Prize will be chosen (for more about this, see here), a process which involves setting up yet another prize, the Physics Frontiers Prize. The idea is that by the end of the year, the Selection Committee of previous prize winners will pick three winners of the new Physics Frontiers Prize, and these will be the candidates for the 2013 $3 million Fundamental Physics Prize. One of the three will get the $3 million, the other two will get $300,000 and automatically renominated for the $3 million prize each year over the next 5 years. So, I guess you might not want to win immediately, since if you get passed over the first time, you might end up with $3.3 million instead of $3 million.

There’s also a separate $100,000 New Horizons in Physics Prize “targeted at promising junior researchers”. Nominations for these two categories of prizes can be made by going to the Fundamental Physics Prize website.

The press release quotes Nima Arkani-Hamed, member of the Selection Committee as:

This is a tremendous opportunity to recognize the highest levels of achievement in fundamental physics. We look forward to receiving nominations for outstanding candidates ranging across all areas of the field.

Arkani-Hamed is in India, where an interview with him appeared today (hat-tip an e-mail from him to Lubos Motl), with comments about the Milner prizes:

I really think it’s a fantastic thing for Physics—to have a showcase every year where scientists get to talk about the exciting aspects of the subject. I don’t think any physicist or scientists are motivated to research by the thought of a prize or the money involved in it. But, it definitely helps in creating awareness among the youngsters, and encourages more people to take up the subject.

the Higgs:

There are people trying to figure out the indirect effects between the different Higgs like particles. These are very difficult experiments and will take another 20 years before any confirmation is reached.

the future of particle physics:

What’s going on in particle physics is not just the evolution of the standard model but the rise of a new branch of physics that can solve some of the age old problems. Super symmetry is a very good example of what this physics should look like. For the first time we will have some evidence that there’s actually really fine adjustments of the parameters of fundamental physics hardwired into the way nature works. This will be very shocking for many people and teach us something profound.

and string theory:

In late 1990s one of the most important theoretical discoveries was that string theory and particle physics are not different but different descriptions of the same thing. All the good viable ideas people have had in the past 40 years are now branched together to seek the truth.

Update: Haaretz reports that Witten “said he would probably donate part of the $3 million he won in a surprise award to J Street, the liberal pro-Israel group.”

Please note that any attempts to pursue, from either side, the Arab-Israeli conflict on my blog’s comment section will be immediately deleted.

Update: Just realized that the Witten/J Street news is rather old, from shortly after the announcement of the original prizes. I didn’t hear about it at the time, curious if there’s other news about what plans the prize winner have for their winnings.

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61 Responses to Physics Frontiers Prize

  1. Bob Jones says:

    I’d like to see these prizes awarded to more people like Kontsevich who do mathematical work. I’m thinking Connes and Drinfeld would be good candidates.

  2. Bob Jones says:

    Peter, I’ve noticed that sometimes you post quotes from string theorists without commentary. What are you implying exactly by quoting Arkani-Hamed on string theory?

  3. James Green says:

    @Bob Jones
    He posted the article…the context is pretty much obvious.

  4. Peter Woit says:

    Bob Jones,

    I’m not implying anything. We report, you decide…

    If you want my reaction to that quote, I think it’s kind of a convention these days to refuse to acknowledge that string theory has failed as an idea about unification, and invoke AdS/CFT to try and argue that string theory now subsumes QFT. I don’t agree.

    As for the “All the good viable ideas people have had in the past 40 years” business, I have no idea what he is referring to. Is string theory unification still viable? Is SUSY still viable post LHC? Are the extra dimensional models he became famous for still viable? Hard to tell. Given his current work on amplitudes, he may very well be referring to twistors, which now date from about 40 years ago and are very much a viable idea.

  5. Bob Jones says:

    “I don’t agree.”

    You don’t agree that string theory is a viable idea about unification, or that it subsumes QFT? Since string theory is a large-N limit of gauge theory, there is a sense in which string theory and particle physics are two aspects of the same thing. There’s nothing technically wrong with that part of Arkani-Hamed’s answer.

    “As for the ‘All the good viable ideas people have had in the past 40 years’ business, I have no idea what he is referring to.”

    I’m not completely sure what he means here either. Probably he means that twistor theory, noncommutative geometry, supersymmetry, and supergravity were all successful ideas and loop quantum gravity was not.

    You didn’t mention the part where Arkani-Hamed refers to AdS/CFT as “one of the most important discoveries” of the late 90s. Does that mean you agree with him about that?

  6. chris says:

    “I don’t think any physicist or scientists are motivated to research by the thought of a prizeI don’t think any physicist or scientists are motivated to research by the thought of a prize”

    i wonder if he kept a straight face saying this.

  7. Bernhard says:

    Bob Jones,

    You mean IF (very big IF) “string theory is a large-N limit of gauge theory, there is a sense in which string theory and particle physics are two aspects of the same thing. ”

    AdS/CFT is an unproven conjecture, not a theorem.

  8. Bee says:

    Sounds like a good procedure if what you want is “more of the same.”

  9. Peter Woit says:

    Bob Jones,

    Yes, I agree that AdS/CFT was an important advance, a very interesting one. As for “string theory is a large-N limit of gauge theory”, that’s only understood at all for specific, very unusual conformally invariant theories such as N=4 SYM. For actual physical asymptotically free gauge theories like QCD, we still don’t have an understanding of their large-N limit, in terms of string theory or anything else.

    And even if string theory ever gives the large-N approximation to gauge theories, that just means that it’s a useful approximation technique, not that it’s the same thing as QFT. Again, I think what is going on here is an attempt to divert people’s attention from failure.

  10. PMS says:

    @Bernhard:

    Yes it is an unproven conjecture, but there now exist such a big mountain of extremely non-trivial and precise tests (and generalizations) of it that there is no doubt that there is some truth to the conjecture. But AdS/CFT correspondence is just the tip of the iceberg, the large N limit is an even smaller part of a much larger idea. The arguments for the holographic principle, by ‘t Hooft, relies on very general ideas that is independent of string theory but should be valid in any consistent theory of quantum gravity. The fact that there is a concrete realization in terms of AdS/CFT correspondence, is highly non-trivial.

    I think it is completely fine to be critical of string theory, as any sane person should be, and even believe its highly unlikely to have anything to do with the physical reality. But its quite dishonest to be negative about anything that has to do with string theory just because you are against it due to some “religious” reasons, just like Motl is pro-string theory due to some “religious” reasons. One also has to acknowledge the fact string theory has certain success stories, in which AdS/CFT correspondence is just one (and it is very important since it gives a realization of the more general and possibly very fundamental principle of holography).

    Sorry for the rant. I just got provoked by the “very big IF” comment, which either indicates you know nothing about the details of AdS/CFT correspondence or you are just as crazy as Lubos Molt. There are many things we know about physics which be believe in, which are not “proven theorems”.

  11. Bernhard says:

    PMS,

    Which “extremely non-trivial and precise tests ” are you talking about? AdS/CFT has some interesting applications to heavy ion physics such as calculation of shear-viscocity, etc. I believe you are exaggerating with “big mountain of extremely non-trivial and precise tests”. AdS/CFT should work for maximally supersymmatric theories, I see no way any test could be “precise” nor how do we have a “big mountain” of it.

    In any case, I am not negative towards AdS/CFT at all. Quite the contrary, if there is any interesting result that came out of string theory to choose, it is definitely AdS/CFT. My comment was only that until the evidence in favor of AdS/CFT gets very compelling (and sorry to disagree with you here, we are not there yet for the simple reasons Peter mentions: What is the string or not-string dual of QCD in the large N-limit ? ) using it as an argument for Strings = QFT is debatable to say the very least.

  12. PMS says:

    @Bernard:

    no I do not consider the applications to heavy ion physics or condensed matter physics as tests of AdS/CFT. I don’t even find them too convincing yet, but definitely potentially very interesting. There exist hundreds, if not thousands, of papers where very precise calculations has been done on both sides of the duality and 100 % match has been found (recent checks using localization are very interesting). If one thinks that AdS/CFT is only about N=4 Super YM in the large N limit, then one has stopped following the field since 1997/1998. There by now exist many other implementations of AdS/CFT, for example a new interesting development is a new conjecture of Gaberdiel and Gopakumar which relates higher spin gravity on AdS_3 to certain types of 2d CFT minimal models (so called W_N models). Here the dual theory is neither a gauge theory nor supersymmetric (the interesting thing is that the dual theory is essentially integrable, and thus one might possible be able to prove the duality in this toy model). There are of course many other generalizations which go very much beyond all this. Personally I have no doubt that there is something about this duality, the fact that you can derive OPE’s, correlation functions, RG flows, partition functions etc. of highly interacting CFT’s from pure gravity with 100 % match cannot simply be accidents. Especially since it works in many different generalizations which look very different from the original Maldacena conjecture, and don’t even rely on string theory (at least in the limits where they are under control, for example the gravity side is classical).

    Let me again emphasis that AdS/CFT correspondence is NOT just a strange duality which was found in string theory, and requires maximal supersymmetry (as you claim). The holographic principle has origins from black hole thermodynamics and information loss paradox, not string theory. In order to be consistent, ‘t Hooft proposed that gravity is in a certain sense non-local and one has to understand this non-locality in order to understand quantum effects. AdS/CFT is just one particular example that “proves” that ‘t Hoofts thought experiments where correct. Even if string theory turns out to be wrong, the holographic principle still stands!

    Thus holography is not interesting because of string theory or applications to condensed matter physics, it is interesting because it is a generic feature of consistent theories of quantum gravity! I think many people misunderstand this and believe that holography is just a strange feature of string theory.

    I am very sorry for this too long post, which contains too many repetitions.

  13. Peter Woit says:

    PMS,

    There’s no question that dualities in QFT are a fascinating and real phenomenon and well-worth investigating. That doesn’t change the fact that there has been a huge amount of hype and mystification surrounding AdS/CFT, and I think it is this that Bernhard is reasonably reacting to. Instead of hype about heavy ions, high-temperature superconductivity, a solution to QCD, string theory and QFT “the same thing”, etc., etc. it would be nice if people working in this area would stick to making claims that bore some semblance to reality. The kind of new relation between 3d and 2d QFTs that you mention is a nice piece of mathematical physics, but it and other advances of its kind don’t support the sort of hype Arkani-Hamed and others are engaging in. Maybe it will someday lead to really understanding quantum gravity, but for now it has had no significant impact on our understanding of particle physics.

  14. vmarko says:

    @PMS:

    Thus holography is not interesting because of string theory or applications to condensed matter physics, it is interesting because it is a generic feature of consistent theories of quantum gravity!

    The crux of the matter, which a lot of people seem to be systematically avoiding, is really the following: what CFT (or otherwise) is dual to the ordinary general relativity in 4D, with a positive cosmological constant (or maybe zero cosmological constant)?

    Until that duality is constructed explicitly, and until one can use it to calculate for example the entropy of an “ordinary” stationary Schwarzschild black hole in 4D, I don’t quite see holography as a generic feature of quantum gravity (the most important/physically relevant one).

  15. Shantanu says:

    Peter, another OT comment.
    I didn’t see any single blog which mentioned about Leonid Grishchuk passing away (except on Peter Coles blog, but he was Grishchuk’s colleague at Cardiff).
    http://telescoper.wordpress.com/2012/09/14/r-i-p-leonid-grishchuk/
    Was his work not well known among particle physicists?

  16. Peter Woit says:

    Shantanu,

    I was not aware of Grishchuk’s work, and I suspect he was little known among particle physicists, since his specialty was classical GR.

  17. Bob Jones says:

    “And even if string theory ever gives the large-N approximation to gauge theories, that just means that it’s a useful approximation technique, not that it’s the same thing as QFT.”

    I’m not sure what you mean here. The AdS/CFT correspondence does in fact say that string theory in anti-de Sitter space is equivalent to a quantum field theory. It sounds like you’re defining QFT to be quantum chromodynamics, which is very strange…

    “Again, I think what is going on here is an attempt to divert people’s attention from failure.”

    So all those people working on AdS/CFT are just trying to distract us from the failure of string theory? Are you serious? What you’re talking about here is the most important result of a forty-year research program and the most profound fact we know about quantum gravity. People are working on AdS/CFT because it’s interesting. You make it sound like some sort of big conspiracy…

  18. Bob Jones says:

    “You mean IF (very big IF)… AdS/CFT is an unproven conjecture, not a theorem.”

    Bernhard, I am sorry, but it’s very hard for me to take such concerns seriously. As PMS has already pointed out, there is an enormous amount of evidence that AdS/CFT is true. As a mathematician, I think rigorous proofs are very important, but there is no doubt in my mind that the correspondence is true and will eventually be proven. I think it’s clear that Maldacena discovered a very deep relationship between two kinds of theories, and since this relationship is, to some extent, a definition of string theory, I’m not sure what it would mean for the correspondence to fail.

  19. Bob Jones says:

    “what CFT (or otherwise) is dual to the ordinary general relativity in 4D, with a positive cosmological constant (or maybe zero cosmological constant)?”

    First of all, the AdS/CFT correspondence is essentially a result about quantum gravity with negative cosmological constant. You need that in order to talk about the conformal boundary of spacetime. There are things like the dS/CFT correspondence for positive CC, but this is not well understood. However, this does not make the correspondence uninteresting for people working on quantum gravity. It just means there are some cosmological problems that need to be worked out. It still gives you a nice dual description of quantum gravity on nearly flat spacetimes.

    “until one can use it to calculate for example the entropy of an “ordinary” stationary Schwarzschild black hole in 4D, I don’t quite see holography as a generic feature of quantum gravity”

    Well, the holographic principle has actually been used to calculate the entropy of Kerr black holes via the Kerr/CFT correspondence. Since there are astrophysical Kerr black holes, this means that is does have some relevance to “real” gravitational physics. The AdS/CFT correspondence also shows up in three-dimensional quantum gravity as famously demonstrated by Brown and Henneaux, so I think it’s fair to say that it is a very generic feature of quantum gravity.

  20. PMS says:

    @Peter

    I could not agree more, string theory is without any doubt the most hyped field in physics. This hype has shortsighted advantages, but on the long run will just turn other physicists against the field. Personally I encourage people to fight this hype, but not turn against a field only based on that. I dislike all arguments for or against string theory, which are purely based on 1) feelings, 2) ignorance or just 3) craziness. For example Lubos Motl is a master of 3), even though he is ridiculously smart. I think string theory has put forward many new and deep insights, both of technical nature but also more importantly, conceptual ones.

    Regarding the new AdS3/CFT2 dualities. I don’t agree that these are only relevant for mathematical physics, they are toy models which show that holography works exactly as one expects even when there are no supersymmetry, gauge theory etc. and thereby putting the whole framework on a more solid state. It might also give hints about certain conceptual question we still don’t understand, such as how does the extra dimension emerge from from the boundary point of view and how can we prove the duality? Toy models have played extremely important roles in the history of physics and still do. The Ising model and phase transitions is an famous example.

    But let me repeat that I do share much of your frustration and worries about the state of the field, at least to some extend.

    @vmarko:

    First of all, the dual theory to our 4D universe/black holes are most likely not CFT’s. The asymptotic symmetry of AdS is conformal group (and the whole Virasoro algebra, for AdS3), which is the reason the dual theory “on the boundary” has to be a CFT. AdS nor CFT are necessary for holography, since the principle should hold much more generally.

    Regarding your point. Finding such a dual QFT is a very very difficult problem, not only due to technical difficulties but also because there are many conceptual problems about quantum gravity we need to understand better. The power of the holographic principle comes from the fact that it relies on quite general assumptions which are generally agreed upon, such as validity of General Relativity, Quantum Mechanics, black hole creation/evaporation is a unitary process and so on (http://arxiv.org/abs/gr-qc/9310026). This a conceptual breakthrough that deserves more detailed study. It takes time to understand these questions good enough to be able to calculate (microscopically) the entropy of the Schwarzschild black hole.

    What I don’t understand is, why do you believe the general arguments/thought experiments which form the basis of black hole thermodynamics. But you refuse to consider very similar types of arguments which form the basis of information loss paradox and the holographic principle…?

  21. Tmark48 says:

    So in the end, real physicists (experimentalists and theoreticians) will still look forward to the Nobel prize, the rest will have to do with the Milner “pseudo-science” prize.

    One of the three will get the $3 million, the other two will get $300,000 and automatically renominated for the $3 million prize each year over the next 5 years.

    Why on earth are the same candidates to be “automatically” renominated every year for the next 5 years. What kind of stupid decision is this ?

  22. Bob Jones says:

    vmarko,

    I should also mention that the argument of Brown and Henneaux shows that any consistent theory of quantum theory of gravity in three-dimensional anti-de Sitter space has a CFT dual. It has nothing at all to do with string theory. When Strominger and Vafa used the holographic principle to compute the entropy of a black hole in string theory, their argument appeared to depend heavily on the details of string theory, but we now know that the holographic principle can be used to compute black hole entropy in any consistent unitary theory of gravity that admits black hole solutions.

  23. vmarko says:

    @Bob Jones:

    First of all, the AdS/CFT correspondence is essentially a result about quantum gravity with negative cosmological constant.

    That is precisely my point. The observed value for the cosmological constant is actually positive. So until someone successfully constructs the “dS_4/CFT_3” correspondence, I am not buying holography as a relevant principle of quantum gravity, let alone generic.

    However, this does not make the correspondence uninteresting for people working on quantum gravity. It just means there are some cosmological problems that need to be worked out.

    How do you plan to work out that “cosmological problem” of the wrong sign of CC? There is a very big jump from a noncompact to compact topology lurking in there. I am yet to see any serious proposal regarding this.

    Well, the holographic principle has actually been used to calculate the entropy of Kerr black holes via the Kerr/CFT correspondence. Since there are astrophysical Kerr black holes, this means that is does have some relevance to “real” gravitational physics.

    Umm, no, those are the extreme Kerr black holes, not the astrophysical ones, precisely because one needs the AdS structure. The only thing that even comes close to calculating the entropy of a BH with a small or zero angular momentum is arXiv:1004.0996, and the authors there openly admit that they still lack a tight argument for non-extreme angular momentum.

    The AdS/CFT correspondence also shows up in three-dimensional quantum gravity as famously demonstrated by Brown and Henneaux, so I think it’s fair to say that it is a very generic feature of quantum gravity.

    Three-dimensional as in 2+1 spacetime dimensions? The theory which actually has no gravity inside? No propagating degrees of freedom? Theory where spacetime is always flat? Wow! 🙂 There are many very nice features of 2+1 gravity (for example, the absence of gravity…) that do not carry to four dimensions. Whenever I hear this kind of an argument, my basic reply is “3=/=4”.

    My point is that all examples of quantum gravity where holography principle holds turn out to be examples of wrong or irrelevant theories of quantum gravity. It is therefore quite far-fetched to call holography a “generic feature” of quantum gravity, since the main, physically relevant example is completely absent. In addition to that, there are many quantum theories of gravity (LQG, spinfoams, CDT, etc…) which do not have any connection at all to the holography principle.

    I’d say holography is far from universal, and actually holds only in some neat example theories, but not in general.

  24. vmarko says:

    @PMS:

    What I don’t understand is, why do you believe the general arguments/thought experiments which form the basis of black hole thermodynamics. But you refuse to consider very similar types of arguments which form the basis of information loss paradox and the holographic principle…?

    Well, shortly put, because BH information loss paradox has many possible avenues where a solution might appear (none completely satisfactory, of course). So I simply do not see holographic principle as the only possible resolution of the paradox. It indeed is one of the possibilities, but not the only one.

    Of course, every opinion on an open question is based on intuition, general philosophical POV on what is important in Nature and what isn’t, prejudices from early youth, etc… 😉

    Don’t get me wrong — I am not advocating that holography is dead wrong or uninteresting or something. I am just saying that “holography is a generic feature of quantum gravity” activates my “hype-overflow” alarm… 🙂

  25. Bob Jones says:

    “How do you plan to work out that “cosmological problem” of the wrong sign of CC?”

    This is obviously a very important open question. I’m just saying that if you want to study short distance effects in quantum gravity (scattering of gravitons, etc.), then the solution is in principle given by the gauge-gravity correspondence.

    “Umm, no, those are the extreme Kerr black holes, not the astrophysical ones”

    In the paper arXiv:0809.4266 [hep-th] where the Kerr/CFT correspondence was first introduced, the authors point out that nearly extreme Kerr black holes have been observed in the sky, and they give GRS 1915+105 as an example. For such black holes, any corrections to the dual CFT representation should be small.

    “The theory which actually has no gravity inside? No propagating degrees of freedom? Theory where spacetime is always flat?”

    Actually, it does have gravity. The classical solutions of Einstein’s equations in three spacetime dimensions are not flat; in fact they include black hole solutions. This makes three-dimensional gravity an important and nontrivial toy model for studying general features of quantum gravity.

    “My point is that all examples of quantum gravity where holography principle holds turn out to be examples of wrong or irrelevant theories of quantum gravity.”

    All I can say is you’re not going to get very far in your understanding of nature if the only theories you’re willing to consider are completely realistic. Sometimes it’s useful to study theories with certain simplifying assumptions.

  26. vmarko says:

    @Bob Jones:

    I should also mention that the argument of Brown and Henneaux shows that any consistent theory of quantum theory of gravity in three-dimensional anti-de Sitter space has a CFT dual.

    Sure, I know, but a 3D theory just doesn’t cut it, IMO. 3D gravity is far too featureless (compared to 4D gravity) to be persuasive enough. I understand that some people consider it a strong hint, and it is a valid research topic, but I just don’t share the opinion that holography principle is a settled matter.

  27. Peter Woit says:

    Please all,

    There’s some sort of law of nature that causes all discussion about theoretical physics to devolve into discussions of quantum gravity. Enough of this here for now please, it’s completely off-topic.

  28. Stephen says:

    Obviously, you use the first 300K to hire two hit men (and a bodyguard).

  29. Bob Jones says:

    Just a small correction, if Peter will allow it. If we’re talking about the vacuum Einstein equations in three dimensions with vanishing cosmological constant, then vmarko is correct in saying that the space of classical solutions is the space of flat metrics. I was just saying that three-dimensional gravity is interesting despite the unphysical simplifying assumptions.

  30. Peter Woit says:

    Bob Jones,

    In my “what is going on here” remark the “here” is the topic of the posting, i.e. the quote from Arkani-Hamed about AdS/CFT meaning string theory = particle physics, not this area of research in general. I don’t actually think there’s any sort of sensible statement of any kind that can be applied to the general topic of research related to these dualities. By now, this involves probably tens of thousands of papers, with topics spanning the range from vague nonsense that belongs in the beyond the fringe science category to very serious mathematical physics, with everything in between.

    To say something sensible, you need to pick a specific conjecture. Even for the one very specific original case of AdS/CFT, meaning superstrings on AdS^5xS^5/N=4 SYM, there’s more and less meaningful conjectures to discuss. Since you don’t know what non-perturbative string theory really is, making your conjecture to be vacuously true at weak CFT coupling by defining non-perturbative string theory = the right QFT isn’t really something to promote as a great success.

  31. Bob Jones says:

    Tmark48,

    Which of this year’s winners is doing “pseudo-science”? What’s your definition of a “real” theoretical physics?

  32. Bob Jones says:

    Peter,

    I think the statement is not that string theory=particle physics but that string theory and particle physics are two aspects of the same thing. In other words, there is a common mathematical idea underlying them, namely gauge theory. If that’s what Arkani-Hamed meant, then I don’t think there’s anything technically wrong with his answer.

  33. Peter Woit says:

    Bob Jones,

    The question Arkani-Hamed was asked was:

    “String theory or standard model, which offers a better explanation to our quest to understand the universe?”

    Clearly the questioner was asking about the well-advertised claims for unification via string theory. Not answering “the standard model” to this is just intentionally misleading and less than honest. You can try and argue that the formulation “string theory and particle physics are not different but different descriptions of the same thing.” is not technically wrong, but I think that’s a strained argument. What Arkani-Hamed is doing here is just throwing sand in the questioner’s eyes, trying to exploit conjectural and poorly understood relations between strong coupling QCD and string theory + true by definition conjectures about non-perturbative string theory being QFT to avoid acknowledging the obvious (standard model= huge success, string theory unification = miserable failure).

  34. Allan Rosenberg says:

    Peter,

    Maybe the best strategy for broadening the scope of the prize beyond string theory is to nominate experimentalists. The only name that springs immediately to my mind is Alain Aspect, but surely somebody who reads this blog has to know who the top experimentalists are at CERN, for example.

    I have to admit, though, that, just for laughs, I did toss Gordon Kane’s name into the ring.

  35. MathPhys says:

    I was thrilled to read that the failure to explain the mass hierarchies using supersymmetry is an exciting development.

  36. anonymous says:

    “Maybe the best strategy for broadening the scope of the prize beyond string theory is to nominate experimentalists. The only name that springs immediately to my mind is Alain Aspect, but surely somebody who reads this blog has to know who the top experimentalists are at CERN, for example.”

    Of course Alain Aspect shared the 2010 Wolf Prize in Physics with John Clauser and Anton Zeilinger. All three of them as well as a dozen people working on the same or similar problems could get a Nobel Prize in the next year or 5. The trouble is that they are all at or approaching 70, not ideal for a New Horizons in Physics Prize.

    If you want to step way outside the mainstream and award the Fundamental Physics Prize to an experimentalist whose work would be truly fundamental but would otherwise go completely unrecognized or dismissed, you could go with Yves Couder, Michel Gouanère, heck even a new unknown like Silke Weinfurtner for New Horizons. I’m certainly not going on record to nominate any of these people.

    For experimentalists at CERN, look away from the LHC. You’re just as likely to see some fun new stuff from Antiproton Decelerator physics, any of the spokespeople. Also very much looking forward to ELI’s fundamental science.

  37. A. says:

    @anonymous

    Um, I’m not sure if the final line of your comment was a joke or not…. 🙂 Point is, the “fundamental science” part of ELI is almost certainly not going ahead. (For those not in the know: they were going to build a super-duper laser to do QED experiments with.) There are essentially two reasons why this project is imploding.

    1) There’s not much money around.

    2) wait for it… too much _hype_ on the part of the guys pushing it. It’s true. In an attempt to gather cash they went down the “flashy publicity” route, promising that they would “rip the vacuum apart” and other sensationalist fluff, and the community got fed up of hearing it. Those guys are increasingly regarded as crackpots who are hindering the field much more than they are helping it.

  38. anonymous says:

    Not a joke… just optimism. Maybe this presents the more tempered version of the claims.

  39. M says:

    Physics is understanding nature. Awarding popular but wrong ideas with millions of $$$ surely is an exciting social game. But it is bad for good physics.

  40. Guy says:

    Edward Witten, according to Haaretz, plans to “donate part of the $3 million he won in a surprise award to J Street, the liberal pro-Israel group”. So it’s good the money’s being used for peace.

    On Lubos Motl’s blog I commented on his ‘Harvard’ post this week. My comment was a direct excerpt of Witten’s 2005 article from here: http://peacenow.org/entries/archive296#.UGwdyq7DuuM in which he criticises Israel settlement building.
    But Motl has blatantly deleted my 2nd comment in which I clarify Witten wrote that excerpt in 2005 (see for yourself), and called me an anti-Semite and because I agree with Witten’s views. He has gone to the extent of saying my 2nd comment stated Witten wrote the comment today, which is a lie.

    I hope Peter Woit you are open enough to publish this above material so it’s clear I don’t lie and who actually does. $3 million to be put in J Street shows it anyway.

  41. Tmark48 says:

    @ Bob Jones :

    Of course there is no such thing as a real theoretical physicist (as opposed to a false theoretical physicists). I just wanted to underline the fact that very few theoretical physicists are awarded the Nobel prize. And there is a reason for this, it’s not just because the Nobel committee hates theoretical physicists. Theoretical physicists build models, models that are used to understand nature around us, models that CONNECT to experimental results and hopefully explain them by giving us a framework around which to understand those phenomena. And better yet, not only understand but predict new kinds of phenoma to be experimentally tested.
    When such models are verified by experiment then those physicists are worthy of the Nobel prize. Does every theoretical physicists under the sun deserve a Nobel prize (because he is working on QLG, or some other exotic topic that will never ever in our lifetimes be even near to be experimentally explored) ? Of course not. Model building alone is not science, it is only a part of science, and without experiments you’re left only with a nice scaffold and no content.
    Conceptual revolutions are not a dime a dozen. They are very very rare in the history of science, and just because the 20th century happened to witness 2 such revolutions doesn’t imply that every generation has to have such a conceptual revolution. Theoretical physicists exploring exotic topic today live in a bad era. An era were experiments cannot probe at all the “predictions” these model builders are advocating.
    Maybe in a future, some theoretical physicist will come up with a new conceptual revolution and experiments at that time will corroborate his findings. Good for him, he will be awareded the Nobel prize. The rest are just collateral damage.

  42. Peter Woit says:

    Tmark48,
    Some thoughts about this:

    Given that theoretical particle physics is in some sense a victim of its own 20th century success, with new experimentally testable insights much harder to come by, if the Nobel committee sticks to the experimentally verified there will be fewer and fewer particle theory Nobelists around. Already, they’re almost all getting pretty old, and even if Higgs et al. get a prize soon, that won’t improve the age distribution. One could argue that standards for the prize need to change, with smaller increments of progress rewarded, including progress that moves us towards something experimentally testable, even if it doesn’t get there. I think this idea is the sort of thing Milner is trying to do.

    The problem then becomes: without experiment to keep you honest, how do you judge what is significant progress and what isn’t? In a field of difficult to understand research, how do you stop prizes from going to those who are loudest and most politically savvy, rather than to what is truly significant? Knowing what is truly significant may well be beyond anyone’s ability to judge. I don’t think the Nobel committee should change its standards unless they can figure out how to resolve this problem, and I think Milner’s decision to create extraordinarily large new prizes without addressing this problem is unwise.

    Much of the story of the last 30 years is one of a huge investment of the particle theory community in a heavily overhyped research program that now has conclusively failed, with the death of hopes for electroweak-scale SUSY the final nail in the coffin. Leaders of the HEP theory community need to acknowledge this failure and draw some lessons from it, not be rewarded extravagantly for behaving like Arkani-Hamed, claiming all is well and refusing to acknowledge what has happened.

  43. Peter Woit says:

    Oh, and one more thing: the problem is not insoluble. Mathematicians have always lived without experiment to keep them honest, and manage to recognize and reward progress. They do have proof to keep them honest though…

  44. Friend says:

    Maybe if physics could be derived on the basis of logic alone, then we might have means of proof to keep physicist honest too. But who knows what logic reality could be based on, right?

  45. Tmark48 says:

    @ Peter Woit :

    I agree with you. Theoretical physicists can and should be awarded prizes. The thing is what do these prizes stand for ? If a theoretical physicist is awarded the Nobel prize then there is no way to take out the experiments from the equation. The Nobel prize not only awards the model building aspect but also the connection with experiments. Einstein was awarded the Nobel prize for the photoelectric effect and not for general relativity, even in the light of the Eddington expedition that “confirmed” one of general relativity’s prediction. And the reason being that the results still had a noticeable margin of error that could invalidate Einstein’s theory. So the Nobel committee was correct in its assessment as crazy as it may seem today. Of course general relativity was tested again and again many decades after Einstein getting the Nobel prize, and many decades after Einstein’s death. Nowadays no one would think that general relativity is invalid and rightly so.

    Theoretical physicists can be awarded different kinds of prizes. Clarification of mathematical principles that underlie physical theories, developping new mathematical tools for carrying out complex physics calculations, developping new mathematical frameworks etc… All these things can be recognised and awarded. But it cannot be called a physics science prize. A mathematical prize yes, but the moment you say physics prize it implictly assumes that those complex theoretical calculations in one way or another connect to experimental data.

    Mathematicians are beholden to the concept of a mathematical proof which is a much more stringent criterion than what goes around in the physics community. Just because mathematicians deal with abstract objects doesn’t mean they can prove arbitrary things.

  46. Bob Jones says:

    “Theoretical physicists build models… When such models are verified by experiment then those physicists are worthy of the Nobel prize.”

    Obviously, one needs experiments to test out new theories, but there’s so much more to theoretical physics than model-building and predictions. After all, Noether’s theorem is one of the most famous results of twentieth century physics, but there’s no sense in which it’s a “prediction” or something that needs to be tested. It’s a purely formal statement about classical mechanics which can be proven mathematically, and when you formulate quantum mechanics, it’s basically true by definition.

    There are many other important results in physics that have nothing to do with predictions. Lagrangian and Hamiltonian mechanics are just reformulations of Newtonian mechanics, but they’re among the most important theoretical tools that physicists use, and they provide the proper framework for understanding quantum mechanics. The technology of Feynman diagrams is another example. It’s not a “prediction” or a “model” but an alternative point of view on quantum mechanics which is extremely important for making predictions.

    I’m all in favor of people making testable predictions, but I think we should recognize more formal kinds of theoretical work as well. I think it would be disastrous for physics if everyone just tried to randomly guess how nature works.

  47. Bob Jones says:

    In response to your comments about mathematics, I should add that none of the formal work being recognized by the Milner prize is mathematics in the strict sense. Quantum field theory and string theory are not mathematics because they are based on abstract notions that do not exist mathematically. The notion of a Feynman integral is not something that you can make precise in full generality. It is an essentially non-rigorous, heuristic idea, and as such, it is not something that mathematicians can study. Quantum field theory and string theory have, of course, had a huge impact on mathematics, but that’s because physical intuition has led to conjectures that have been recast in the precise language of mathematics.

  48. vmarko says:

    I completely agree with Bob Jones that there are some extremely important and insightful theoretical advancements in physics which have (by their nature) no relation to experiment. It’s not mathematics, and yet it’s also not experimentally testable stuff. So this kind of work does not qualify neither for the Nobel prize nor for the Fields medal, loosely speaking.

    This is the void that Milner prize seems to fit in. While I don’t exactly support the method for the winner decision process, the Milner prize still seems to have some legitimacy, because it aims to reward scientists which have given important theoretical contributions, but would be missed both by the Nobel and the Fields.

    In that light, the idea seems to be legit and good. The implementation, however, isn’t that great IMO.

  49. Anonyrat says:

    Feynman diagrams took off because Feynman used them to make precise QED computations, not because they were generically interesting.

  50. Anonyrat says:

    Likewise the Noether theorem gave a deeper insight into laws that were already known to be experimentally true.

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