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.

: 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. Jeffrey M says:


    Agree about Sholze, but worth noting that he is following in the footsteps of Perelman, who turned down $1 million from Clay after he proved the Poincare Conjecture.

  2. Anonyrat says:

    We are witnessing the attempted transformation of mathematics and physics research into a “winners-take-all” culture. Instead of making life a bit easier for the many graduate students, post-docs and people struggling in tenure-track positions, money is being given to the stars. So it is becoming like professional sports, acting, etc., where the top becomes extremely wealthy; the next-to-the-top just make a living, and everyone else is waiting tables while trying to make a mark in the field.

  3. Bill says:

    Maybe, we shouldn’t put words in Peter Scholze’s mouth… Maybe, Quanta magazine can interview him.

    Is it just a coincidence that all mathematics prizes were in geometry?

  4. KJ says:

    “Milner and Zuckerberg perhaps should be encouraged to listen to Scholze and move in a different direction.”

    In what direction is Scholze suggesting they move?

  5. Peter Woit says:

    That may be a bit badly worded. I have no reason to believe Scholze has any particular suggestions for them, and no idea what his thinking about any of this is.

    My point was rather that if arguably the best young mathematical researcher around turns down your effort to encourage mathematics research by giving him a 100K check, effectively saying he wants no part of what you are doing, you might want to reexamine whether what you are doing really is the best way to encourage math research. I sincerely doubt that if Milner and Zuckerberg went around to the best mathematicians in the world and asked them “what can we do to encourage mathematics research?”, they would hear back “set up a Hollywood-style award ceremony and hand out $3 million checks”.

  6. Baixiao says:

    Maybe this is a bit off topic here, but I find striking that Milner’s prize has been awarded to just a few condensed matter Physicists so far. It is embarrassing to see all those Silicon Valley millionaires giving away their money to mainly high energy and cosmology Scholars. I am sure they are all perfectly aware that their fortunes largely come from technologies that heavily rely on the work of many (unfortunately, rather quiet) condensed matter Physicists.

    I know this may not be the forum to air this kind of frustration. However, I find this neglect particularly painful these days after the recent loss of Leo Kadanoff, whose contributions, which were instrumental for Ken Wilson’s Nobel winning work, were largely unrecognized by various “big prize” committees.

  7. Andrew says:

    Can you elaborate on why a winner turned down his cash prize? Misgivings about the way the math competition is organised? He thought other mathematicians were more worthy? He lives an ascetic or solitary life and didn’t want such a change or attention?

  8. M says:

    Some recognition should also go to people, like John Bahcall (now deceased), who computed the flux of solar neutrinos claiming an anomaly with respect to measured rates. After all, the SNO neutral current measurement confirmed that they were right. And neutrino oscillation discoveries started from this anomaly.

  9. math_lambda says:

    Looks like a long joint paper by Cariaini and Scholze was posted to the arxiv precisely on sunday : http://arxiv.org/abs/1511.02418 Now that’s funny!

  10. Peter Woit says:

    I don’t know what Scholze’s thinking was about this. I hope he’ll comment publicly at some point. He’s not someone like Perelman who leads an unusual solitary and ascetic life, so I don’t think that has anything to do with it.

  11. Bernhard says:

    The case for a new collider to study Higgs properties is actually a sound one. Even with the Super LHC we won’t know the Higgs width accuratly enough. Around 10% of the total branching ratio would stil be open for it to decay to exotic stuff.

  12. Thomas Larsson says:

    Baixiao, I may misremember, but I think Wilson has publicly stated that he thought his Nobel should have been shared with Kadanoff and Mike Fisher.

    The status of the Nobel prize does not only come from the fact that it is big and old (although I know of no other prize that beats Nobel on both size and age), but also from the fact that the Nobel committees (in the sciences) have never made any serious blunders. This is bound to make the Nobel committees very conservative institutions, that are unlikely the change their practice anytime soon.

  13. Bernhard says:

    “from the fact that the Nobel committees (in the sciences) have never made any serious blunders.”

    Serious blunder maybe not, but the Nobel prize has a rather regular history of “forgetting” several people and in some cases, in an inexcusable way, like the fact that S. Nath Bose didn’t get the prize.

    The argument that they keep committing these mistakes and will keep making them out of tradition simply doesn’t stick. They have the power to change the status quo and they should. Acknowledging for example that big science is done by large teams should not in any sense interfere with the rigorousness of the process.

  14. LK2 says:

    Nobel prizes on Peace has few blunders. I would not say so for the other ones.
    Milner prizes are a disgrace for sciences and now I really wonder why Scholze turned it down.

  15. Peter Woit says:

    All, please, enough with off-topic discussion of Nobel mistakes, real or imagined. That has nothing to do with the topic of this posting.

  16. rc123 says:

    OK, my comment will be off topic, but it won’t be about de Nobel: considering I’m a layman in mathematics, you all think of Scholze as a “problem solver” or a “theory builder”, if you even can categorize him in such a binary mode?

  17. Peter Woit says:

    He’s definitely on the “theory builder” end of things.

  18. ronab says:

    “… Even better, there has been an unusual emphasis on making an award to entire experimental collaborations…”

    On the contrary, it seems to me that this approach makes the entire breakthrough prize utterly pointless. Why on earth does anyone care whether the Facebook founder’s friend decides that some actress should say nice things about one particular 1000 person physics collaboration over another, and to give it a check that amounts to a few hours or days of its ongoing budget? If they give Witten a check for $3 million, at least it makes some difference to Witten, but relatively tiny awards by non-scientists to vast collaborations make absolutely zero difference to anybody.

  19. Peter Woit says:

    I agree there’s a real question “Why on earth does anyone care whether the Facebook founder’s friend decides that some actress should say nice things ” about any particular scientist, mathematician, or group of such. But, given that some people seem to care about these things (prizes, awards), giving yet another one to people who already have a long list of them on their CV already, and generally no need for the money, seems a way to make no difference. As far as I know, there are no other prizes given to such groups, so this means 1300 people now have an impressive sounding prize to put on their CV, which could be quite significant to them. If they’re getting an evenly distributed cut of the money, that would be over $2000 each, and for many of them such a check might have more impact on their well-being than the multi-million dollar checks going to the well-off.

  20. ronab says:

    “… an impressive sounding prize to put on their CV, which could be quite significant to them.”

    That’s a very alarming thought. The physics hiring process is random enough as it is. Is it now to be further corrupted by random low-level researchers strutting around with Nobel-prize-lite’s on their resumes simply because they happened to join the right large collaboration at the right time, ie shortly before the subject caught the fleeting fancy of a passing website entrepreneur? I’d been assuming that anyone with hiring influence would be smart enough to ignore such specious claims to fame. But if you’re right and it might actually be significant to them, do you really think this would be a good thing?

  21. Peter Woit says:

    The point of the prize is to reward people who have done work the funder thinks is admirable. If 1300 people have one, I don’t think having this on one’s CV is going to be a major factor in any hiring, but it allows people to point out “I worked on a successful, important experiment”. Milner’s goal of getting more recognition for scientists I think is fine, and this seems a good example of how to do it right (as opposed to trying to turn a particular scientist into a celebrity by giving him a large check and getting him to dress up and walk a red carpet).

  22. Jim Akerlund says:

    Watching the videos on the Breakthrough Prize Math Horizons II. At the 31 minute mark is a fire alarm that interrupts Ian’s talk. The talk resumes at the 54 minute mark. I mention this for the potential viewers. I was viewer # 371. The video being on Youtube means that you can skip the offending section without too much trouble. The fire alarm did effect the talks in that the question and answers at the end of the talks were cancelled, and it seems some of the talks were shortened.

  23. Tom DeLillo says:

    As chair of a department at a midsize state university with budget shortages and students in debt, I have trouble taking much interest in all of these prizes. I can rarely hire new assistant professors to replace retirees. Even a funded three-year postdoc would be nice to give some young person a chance to stay in the profession.

  24. Bernd says:

    I agree with you that when asking the best mathematicians how to encourage people to do research, they probably won’t come up with large cash prizes, but why would you want to ask them in the first place? I’m not so sure that they are the most authoritative source on why young people decide to pursue one interest or another.

    On the other hand, if one judges the effectiveness of the prizes by the coverage they have received in media geared at young audiences (Buzzfeed, Vice, reddit), then one has to say that these awards have been an utter failure so far.

  25. Peter Woit says:

    Tom DeLillo,
    Thanks, I think you identify a crucial issue here. For many years middle-class academic jobs have been disappearing in the US, replaced by poorly paid adjunct positions, and a small number of well-paid positions for “stars”. Prizes like the Milner-Zuckerberg one seem intent on making this worse, their idea is that what the field needs is more money and attention for the “stars”.

  26. Math.Phys says:

    Why Scholze turned down the breakthrough prize? Probably because he’s young and still remembers the reason why he decided to be a research mathematician and thinks that these people are doing damage to the subject.

  27. Peter Woit says:

    I think good mathematicians are the best source of advice about how to encourage good mathematics research, and that there is likely a strong consensus amongst them that turning mathematicians into wealthy celebrities isn’t the way to do it (and that there’s even a serious danger that will negatively impact the research community).

    Considering the number of jobs available doing mathematics research, there are more than enough young people interested. Young people are exposed to mathematics on a daily basis in their schools and either the subject itself or an inspiring teacher convince many that they love the subject and want to learn more about it. If one sees a problem there, a much better way to spend money would be on getting better math teachers by paying them better. That would have a lot more positive impact than pictures of Maxim Kontsevich getting a big check and a glitzy orb from a starlet.

  28. Cynicism says:

    I think a comment in Michael Harris’ blog is pertinent. Scholze used to play in a rock band himself. Now he is a professional mathematician. Robert Schneider of Apples in Stereo became famous as the frontman for a rock group. Now he is a graduate student under Ken Ono. If you look at mathematical conference photos, you will often see at least a few people dressed in a way that wouldn’t be out of place at a metal concert. I can’t speculate on the experiences of these two or anyone else, but I also played casually in a rock group and personally found the profession wanting.

    I distinctly remember an instance where I worked extremely hard to sell a middling amount of tickets to a show and although I didn’t get paid, the friends I brought along enjoyed it. Later on that week I ran a tutoring session and although it wasn’t terribly fascinating stuff that I was teaching, I felt a whole lot better about seeing the “Oh, I get it now” look in someone’s eyes and doing something that could actually make someone’s life better than killing myself to play for free to an auditorium full of half-interested people. Plus I got paid for the tutoring! I think I played one or two more shows after that, and each time I couldn’t help feeling that music was the sucker’s bet and I was just wasting my time there. Perhaps this was a function of the times and the music industry collapsing, but I would certainly be sad to see mathematics become as susceptible to market forces.

  29. “Milner and Zuckerberg perhaps should be encouraged to listen to Scholze and move in a different direction.”

    Just curious: What kind of direction would you think about here?

  30. Peter Woit says:

    Curious Wavefunction,

    As indicated in my previous comments, I think it would be better to not spend money on those already doing very well, but on positions important to the profession that are not paid well. Two examples are
    1. High school math teachers. If anyone deserves more recognition and support, it’s them.
    2. Permanent university teaching positions with a livable salary and with low enough teaching load to allow for a healthy research program. Such positions are disappearing in many universities in the US (see the comment from Tom DeLillo above). Endowing a bunch of these each year would have an impact, encouraging more people to think of math research as a viable career, not just something that only “stars” have a shot at.

    If one wants to directly support math research, along the lines traditionally done by the NSF, I think the Simons Foundation does a good job of this, others could follow their lead.

  31. Jeff M says:

    Amen Peter to all the points. One thing in math, we have always prided ourselves (most of us anyway) on not having a Nobel or any sort of star system really. We basically all had the choice after grad school to go work on wall street for a ton of money. When I got my doctorate, the year the academic market in math collapsed, no one I know had a job offer until May. None of us had given up to go make a ton of money, we were all trying desperately to get academic jobs which honestly paid almost nothing, my first job, in 1992, paid $32,600. I worked at that salary for 3 years due to a contract dispute. If I had just gone to Wall Street I could have easily started at 5 times as much, with a big bonus. I would be retired now 🙂

  32. Yes, please. says:

    Did anyone else find the talk after Nadler’s – the one by George Lakoff – strange? A lot of the things he describes as original finds of cognitive science, such as looking at multiplication as rotation, are just standard fare that one finds in the explanatory passages of college textbooks. I was so surprised by the triviality of the whole talk that I can’t even mention it non-anonymously (nonymously?) for fear of being accused of being stupid or worse, mean-spirited. What am I missing?

  33. Chris W. says:

    I was wondering why Lakoff was even giving a talk at such an event. I guess the work and writings summarized in this section of Wikipedia’s profile partly explain the invitation.

  34. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    Lakoff appears to be arguing with people like Max Tegmark about the “reality” of maths. I assume whether or not one considers this a worthwhile discussion to have in the first place will determine their opinion about the appropriateness of Lakoff’s lecture for the occasion.

    Put me squarely in the “not” column.

  35. Jim Baggott says:

    There’s a long history of wealthy businesspeople distributing largesse for the benefit of science and scientists, all the way from Nobel, Rockefeller, the Carlsberg Foundation (which funded Niels Bohr’s institute and research programmes in Copenhagen), the Bambergers (who founded the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, bringing Einstein, von Neumann, Oppenheimer, Godel and Weyl to the faculty) to more recent examples including John Simons, John Templeton, Fred Kavli, and now Yuri Milner and Mark Zuckerberg.

    Much of this is good, old-fashioned philanthropy. There are nearly always agendas at work beneath the funding, and in some cases these may be more visible. But good philanthropy is not PR – yes, the odd institute or professorial chair is named for the benefactor but often little else. In some cases, the names of the benefactors are not widely known or advertised.

    I can’t help but wonder if the Hollywood, Oscar-style Breakthrough Prizes are saying
    more about the benefactors in this case than the individuals who are being rewarded for their efforts.

  36. Chris W. says:

    Jim Baggott,
    I assume you mean James (Jim) Simons.

  37. Bill says:

    Another problem is that universities will do anything to raise and keep their rankings high, and rankings usually put high weight on faculty with important awards. Quite often there are quite a few good candidates for any given award but only one gets it, often based on random factors. If later you compare the salaries of award winners and other equally good researchers, the difference can be quite dramatic.

  38. Truth says:

    Actually I think Neil deGrass Tyson would be among the top 100 most famous celebrities in the US. Maybe even Bill Nye too.

  39. Peter Woit says:

    Depending on how you measure celebrity fame, I think there might be several scientists in the top 100. The problem is that the way you acquire celebrity fame is by getting on TV, and the people you mention are famous for their TV shows, not for their scientific accomplishments. I don’t think the Breakthrough prizes have created any celebrities, and as long as they reward scientific accomplishment and not talent as a TV personality, they likely won’t. I liked Michael Harris’s point in his latest blog entry:

    “whatever the Silicon Valley celebrities may think, the deep motivations that make someone want to be a mathematician are hopelessly, comically, incompatible with the deep motivations that make someone want to be a rock star.”

  40. Justin says:


    Can you explain why it is important to have funding to do math research? So long as one is earning a livable wage, I don’t see what difference it makes. A full time professor at a community college I would think would be in just as good a position to do math research as a professor at Harvard. Of course their outputs aren’t expected to be the same, but that’s because the professor at the community college is presumably less talented than the Harvard professor.

  41. Peter Woit says:


    Math research is much less dependent on research funding than experimental science fields, where funding is needed for equipment, etc. However, it still does play an important role. A lot of funding from the NSF and private foundations goes to paying the salaries of postdocs and stipends of graduate students. Without such funding, there would be many fewer young research mathematicians at work. This kind of funding also supports conferences, workshops and travel, making it possible for people to get together with others working on the same topic, which is very helpful for making progress. It also sometimes pays for people to take time off from teaching responsibilities and devote full-time to research, including traveling somewhere to work with others.

    Research funding also does go to mathematicians with permanent jobs to supplement their salaries, and one could question that (but I don’t want to start that debate here). Universities often take a cut of this, and as a result may reduce the amount of teaching such a person needs to do, providing them with more time to work on their research.

    It is quite common for mathematics faculty without grants, at places with little research funding, to do excellent research. A notable example would be Yitang Zhang and his very successful work. But there is a huge difference between teaching at a community college and teaching at Harvard. At a community college one likely will be teaching something like 5 different classes/semester, which is quite a lot of work, leaving the average person with little energy for other projects. At Harvard right now, it’s more like one class/semester, allowing one to spend most of one’s time on research (whether or not one has a grant or any sort of funding).

  42. Bill says:

    Speaking about Yitang Zhang, I am still very surprised he didn’t get the Breakthrough prize. He was an obvious candidate in the sense that he clearly deserved it and that the prize could be seen as a payback for all lost wages. I thought he would be the most apolitical choice, but clearly there was some politics involved.

  43. Bill says:

    I know it’s maybe not a good time for comments, but I thought this might cheer people up: a new breakthrough theorem by Peter Scholze.

  44. Chris W. says:

    It was mentioned above that Peter Scholze used to play in a rock band. Manjul Bhargava (in that photo talking with Scholze) is an accomplished tabla player, according to Wikipedia.

  45. pindaroi says:

    On the subject of Mathematics creeping into popular awareness:
    Some of you may be familiar with the series Lewis from ITV in the UK, which is the successor to the Inspector Morse series.
    The scene of the opening crime in the case presented by the latest episodes 5 and 6 of Series 9 is the Andrew Wiles building in Oxford’s Math department. and the solution depends on the representation of the structure of a specific knot in knot theory.

  46. rc123 says:

    Also, about mathematics going popular, in the TV show Elementary, I just realized three mathematicians (all in separate episodes!) have gone on to be murderers…

  47. Pingback: Langlands Items | Not Even Wrong

  48. been there says:

    Why is everyone assuming that Scholze turned down the prize because he does not like the money? Has it crossed anyone’s mind that he may have simply not liked the bother to have to cross the Atlantic, dress up in a tuxedo, and in general act as you are told by the organizers and not as you please? Four days of your life for a $100,000 check (minus taxes). If you don’t show up, no prize.

  49. Peter Woit says:

    been there,
    Maybe I’m wrong, but as far as I know, winners are not required to dress up and perform to get the check (especially the junior ones who I don’t think appeared on TV), he could have accepted and politely declined to attend the ceremony. I hope some day we’ll hear from him about his thinking about this, I haven’t heard anything about him feeling that his motivations have been mischaracterized.

  50. been there says:

    some years back you were required to. as I said – been there.

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