2016 Breakthrough Prizes

The 2016 Breakthrough Prizes were announced last night, discussed a bit in the last posting. Today there are programs going on at Berkeley, livestreams available here.

One thing that strikes me about these things is that the situation with the physics prize has changed dramatically since the first three years, when they went mostly to string theorists. Having a heavily promoted much larger cash prize than the Nobel, given largely to theorists for ideas many of which haven’t worked out, raised obvious questions about the wisdom of the whole thing. The last two years have seen a 180 degree turn, with the prizes going to experimentalists for successful experimental results. Even better, there has been an unusual emphasis on making an award to entire experimental collaborations, not just a small number of “great men” identified as collaboration leaders or spokespersons. I don’t know of any other major prizes that do this. The lack of an experimental Nobel for the Higgs discovery is one reflection of that problem, it’s great that the Breakthrough Prize people are doing something about it.

This is now just the second year of the math prize, which has never been as problematic as the early physics prize. However, the institution of cash prizes of this size, promoted in a Hollywood style, is something I don’t think anyone in the math community ever asked for, and it’s not at all clear it’s a good thing, or in keeping with some of the best values of the math research community. This year I think Peter Scholze set a remarkable example by turning down a prize, a move which unfortunately has gotten little attention in the media. I hope his action causes people to take a closer look at this gift horse. Instead of just celebrating the shower of cash and attention, research mathematicians may want to consider whether, just as they changed direction with the physics prize, Milner and Zuckerberg perhaps should be encouraged to listen to Scholze and move in a different direction.

Update: I just watched some of the talks at the afternoon symposia. Arkani-Hamed made the case for a Great Collider, mostly quite sensibly in terms of the desirability of better understanding the Higgs: is it pointlike? how does it self-interact? The argument is that addressing these questions goes beyond what the LHC can do, can be done by a large new collider.

On the math side, David Nadler gave a beautiful talk about Langlands/geometric Langlands, ending with a prediction for the future that a central role will be played by Peter Scholze’s work, including recent ideas on what Nadler calls “Arithmetic conformal field theory”. He suggested that 50 years from now, Hartshorne and other graduate textbooks on algebraic geometry will be replaced with new ones based on Scholze’s perfectoid spaces. Maybe if they hadn’t offered Scholze money they could have gotten him to talk about this stuff…

Update: The New York Times Science section has an article today about the goal of the Breakthrough prizes, to turn scientists into celebrities. Yuri Milner is quoted:

“We are at the very beginning of this journey,” he said, noting that if you were to look at a list of the top 100 celebrities in American society, there would not be a single scientist on the list.

“The question is why?” he added.

The question this raises, which may have something to do with Peter Scholze’s refusal to participate, is “what if good scientists don’t want to be celebrities?” The impulse to do science and mathematics at the highest level and the impulse to be a celebrity may just be two very different, incompatible things.

The New York Times article doesn’t mention the Scholze story, but it does discuss the young student, Ryan Chester, who was given a $400,000 award for making a film about special relativity. It turns out that doing a great job of making such a film has a lot more to do with interest in being a filmmaker than interest in being a scientist:

Mr. Chester, however, said in an interview that he was not planning to study science in college, but instead will probably study film, hopefully at a school like the University of Southern California or New York University.

Update: Videos from the symposia and panel discussions at Berkeley are available here.

Update
: In other large-check news of the day, the IAS has announced a $20 million donation from Robert Rubenstein, CEO of the Carlyle Group, a top private equity firm. This completes a $212 million capital fundraising campaign.

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52 Responses to 2016 Breakthrough Prizes

  1. Peter Woit says:

    Pierre,
    Thanks. Sounds like he’ll accept that one, and presumably also the Fields medal when he gets in it 2018…

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