Breakthrough Prizes 2017

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.

: 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.”

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72 Responses to Breakthrough Prizes 2017

  1. Peter Woit says:

    This is off-topic. Results should be announced in March at the Moriond conference. I’ve heard no rumors of any results indicating SUSY.

  2. anon says:

    This is anon replying to anon (just to clarify matters).

    I did a quick count. Of the 22 junior winners in particle (excluding the 3 CMT people), I count 19 where (if you are in the subject and know the intellectual/social connections) it is easy to draw a short line to Princeton.

    With the senior people, almost everyone who has won the prize has made significant, deep and lasting contributions to fundamental physics. But it’s a narrow and impoverished view of fundamental physics that would weight prizes so heavily to string theory and allied topics (and I work on string theory, so I’m not anti- the subject).

    The statements ‘people who get these prizes are respected in the subject’ and ‘the prizes are part of a patronage network’ can both be true (and are).

  3. anon says:

    Bill: for one example, look at Polchinski’s work on effective field theory in condensed matter (for one example)

    anon: being slightly mischievous, I am trying to think whether you are uniquely identifiable from being (a) a staff member at CERN-TH and (b) willing to list Weinberg’s anthropic discussion of the cosmological constant as on a par with inflation and MSW

  4. Bill says:

    Why Phil Anderson didn’t get the Breakthrough prize for Anderson-Higgs mechanism? Of course, we will quickly run out of such obvious examples, but I am sure there are many more good ones. Take this year’s Nobel prize winners, for example.

    In string theory, it seems that the rules are quite different from the rest of physics. If you have large enough theoretical toolbox to play with and a good imagination, you can keep proposing various “fundamental physics” ideas. There is no formula or mechanism to test in experiments or in simulations, or even for mathematicians to break their back with. You propose some paradox, and come up with many not necessarily compatible ways to “solve” it.

  5. Bill says:

    anon, if you give “Effective Field Theory” as an example, one can come up with a long list of people in condmat and related fields who are by an order of magnitude more deserving. This just proves my point.

  6. anon says:

    Bill: because no prize was given for the Higgs mechanism. Also: Anderson seems to be confused about the difference between the Higgs boson and the W-boson (see the discussion in his “Basic Notions…” book).

    anon who replied to anon: I’m not sure how you counted. For the record I believe Hartnoll, Casini, Huerta, Ryu, Takayanagi, Flauger, Graham, Arvanitaki, Rajendran, Yin have no particular connection to Princeton. As a connection I count PhD, postdoc or a job. I don’t count vague `intellectual connections’ because this is not well defined, and if you start stretching it too far, we are all related to Eordos, to Hilbert, to Adam and Eve and perhaps even to Rovelli and Smolin in just a handful of steps. I might be wrong on one or two of the above winners, still, this makes it close to 50% total outsiders. Not bad at all, given that the rest 50% is also top and it would be unfair to exclude them just because they happened to do their PhD or one of their postdocs at top institutions as Princeton or IAS. I have to stress once again that the selection committee by now includes so many physicists from so many fields that string theorists and Princetonians do not hold a majority. Just nominate (many people complain but don’t nominate) your top choices and hopefully they will be among next year’s winners. And it’s excluded you can identify me from the verified predictions I mentioned. At CERN-TH we are proud to be universalists.

  7. anon says:

    Bill : “There is no formula or mechanism to test in experiments or in simulations, or even for mathematicians to break their back with.” There are tons of formulas that came out from string theory that mathematicians are breaking their back with now as we speak.

  8. anon says:

    tulpoeid: why boosted? If everyone hates this prize as much as the readership of this blog seems to suggest, then having been awarded it is going to be a handicap, not a boost, in the race for a Nobel. Surely the Swedish Royal Academy is going to side with you guys and will punish LIGO.

  9. anon says:

    I did not say they do their “best” work in cond-mat or cosmology. But they do do very important work in those fields as well. Pity that you assume that I don’t talk to people in those fields. Not only do I do, but I also regularly attend seminars and follow the literature on these subjects. It’s a very rewarding experience and I recommend it to everyone. I hope you can say the same about yourself. Now, concerning QFT which was also on my list but which you dropped (is it because it does not fit your narrative?), some of the very best work of Polyakov, Witten, Maldacena is in QFT. They are as much field theorists as they are string theorists. Had they not written a single string theory paper, still they would have more than deserved the fundamental physics prize. It might be that from the point of view of this blog the moment you start thinking about strings, you get negative points which cancel even your previous achievements. But the community does not think the same.

  10. Pingback: Polchinski, Strominger y Vafa ganan el premio Breakthrough 2017 | Ciencia | La Ciencia de la Mula Francis

  11. anon says:

    Just to be concrete. Here’s a recent paper by Maldacena, Shenker and Stanford which is valued by cond-mat researchers as much as any other recent paper in that subject: Proof? It has been featured this month on, a site run by cond-mat researchers for cond-mat researchers.

  12. Peter Woit says:

    I’ve just resisted the temptation to respond to the flood of misinformation from anon at CERN-TH and urge everyone else to do so. This discussion with him has become an unenlightening waste of time so I’ll cut it off. Other discussions with something new to say are encouraged.

  13. Hans.Neumaier says:

    In 1912, Nils Gustaf Dalén won the Nobel Prize in Physics “for his invention of automatic regulators for use in conjunction with gas accumulators for illuminating lighthouses and buoys”. His predecessor was Wien (of Wien’s law) and his successor was Kamerlingh Onnes (discovery of superconductivity). Fermi got the prize in 1938 for a mistaken publication – but deserved it. Also the Nobel Prize has strange sides.

    But still, they are much less strange than the Breakthrough prize, where dozens of string theorists get prizes for a theory that predicts supersymmetry – which, as data show and Veltman writes, is “a figment of imagination”. Yes, string theorists are influential, very much so. Nobody denies this. Not even Woit… But this influence does not make string theory correct or the prize deserved. We are back in times where influence (authority!) is valued more that experimental data. Didn’t physicists fight for centuries against the misuse of authority and in favor of experiment?

  14. Bernhard says:

    “A very good thing about the Breakthrough Prize though is that it is given to the entire collaboration, with awards going to every one. ”

    Although they didn’t do this with the special prize for the Higgs they gave to Gianotti and Incandela in 2012. Back then, they said the prize would be donated to support a grant or something like that but in the end they decided it was best to keep in their pockets, as far as I know.

  15. Bill says:

    Bernard, wasn’t it given to 7 or 8 people, not 2? So only ~375K per person, although it’s a shame if they kept it in their pockets…

  16. Bernhard says:


    The special prize due the Higgs was shared by F. Gianotti, J. Incandela, P. Jenni, T. Virdee, G. Tonelli and L. Evans. As far as I remember, this was a 3 million prize shared among these people, so actually 500k.

    Whatever the sum though , I think it was substantial and shameful that they did not return this money back to young people at their collaborations, even though some like Gianotti, claimed they would.

    It’s unjust enrichment if you ask me.

  17. Bill says:

    Bernard, is it possible they used the money to to fund some research activities, students, postdocs, etc., and this information is just not on the internet?

  18. Peter Woit says:

    Bernhard and Bill,
    It looks like there was some use of the prize money for scholarships, see
    about an ATLAS PhD Scholarship program (Jenni and Gianotti), a CMS Fundamental Physics Scholarship (Incandela) and training for African high school teachers (Virdee). There’s also mention that

    “Virdee is working on, along with the other CMS recipients of the FPP, is setting up a series of prizes to recognize and assist young people within the CMS collaboration who have made significant contributions.”

    I don’t know if that ever happened or if anything similar was planned for ATLAS.

  19. Peter Woit says:

    More about the CMS part of this here, which includes a 20,000 franc scholarship to pay for someone to come to CERN for a year.

  20. Bernhard says:


    thanks. I looked for it before (long time ago) on their site and didn’t find it . It’s good to see that at least part of the prize was put to good use by at least some of the contenders.

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