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.

Update
: Smaller \$100,000 “New Horizons” prizes, some split in various ways, went to 6 theoretical physicists (Asimina Arvanitaki, Peter Graham, Surjeet Rajendran, Simone Gombi, Xi Yin and Frans Pretorius) and 4 mathematicians (Mohammed Abouzaid, Hugo Duminil-Copin, Ben Elias and Geordie Williamson). Congratulations to all, especially to the Columbia contingent (Mohammed is a faculty member now, Ben was a grad student here, and TA one year for my representation theory course).

Update: Some of the language quoted above as part of the citations for the string theory awards was actually in a separate section of materials distributed to the press called “Contributions”, which gave more specifics of what the award was being made for. I’ve changed the wording above to more accurately reflect this.

Update: Just watched the Breakthrough Prize ceremony on TV. Very nice short portrait of Jean Bourgain and his work, and remarks by him. The string theorists were right at the end, and the DVR cut off in the middle of a clip of outrageous hype from them (I guess the ceremony went slightly longer than scheduled).

Update: Nature has coverage of the prizes here, emphasizing the award to Polchinski for firewalls, with some justification from Milner.

Update: Livestream of the symposium is here. Polchinski and Strominger will be talking about black hole information paradox/string theory, Vafa will describe “a research program for putting rigorous bounds on the lifetime of our universe, by studying the range of possibilities permitted by the laws of string theory.”

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72 Responses to Breakthrough Prizes 2017

  1. anon says:

    A nice detail that shows how much Breakthrough Prize ceremony really is about scientists is that National Geographic Channel managed to misspell Vafa’s first name as ‘Comrum’ in its tweets.

  2. Jeff M says:

    Back when I was a young mathematician I used to tell people I was glad there wasn’t a Nobel in math, since the Nobel’s only harmed the sciences. The Breakthrough prizes are of course much worse. Terrible use of the money, all around.

  3. CIP says:

    Leo Szilard wrote a story in which a guy who was thawed out after many years frozen, finding, himself now immensely rich, pondered the problem of how to spend it. He decided that he wanted to slow down scientific progress, and concluded that the best way would be to fund a bunch of scientific prizes that would get all the promising scientists chasing them. I think the story appeared in his book, The Voice of the Dolphins.

  4. I wonder if Bourgain will donate his prize money to the Breakout graduate fellowships?

  5. Bee says:

    Great, then when do I get my prize for showing that the firewall argument is wrong? I mean, I feel like I’m starting to sound like one of the cranks in my inbox. It’s demonstrably a wrong derivation. The four assumptions they claim are inconsistent are not inconsistent. It’s an unnecessary fifth assumption, hidden in the text, that makes them inconsistent. It’s mathematically provably wrong. I even have a counterexample. And it’s all published. Hello, hello, anybody? We can stop talking about it.

    (This isn’t to say that Joe doesn’t deserve a prize, but maybe the firewall wasn’t exactly the thing to highlight.)

    Leaving aside my puzzlement about the world of theoretical high energy physics, I’ve heard various rumors that LIGO was nominated in time for the Nobel last year. Not sure what to conclude from that if true.

  6. Jess Riedel says:

    What is the point of dividing an award up among 1k people? Each one gets $2k and…something on their CV which is immediately worthless by dilution? It resembles a useless cum laude distinction.

    Prizes are meant to give folks status, but status is zero sum. Yes, it may not make sense to give an award to the leaders of a huge collaboration if those leaders did nothing extraordinary. But why not simply refrain from giving an award out if no one did anything extraordinary?

    The only explanation I can think of is that such awards would function as a way, not to incentive physicists, but to highlight to outsiders the best achievements by physicists as a group.

  7. Manfred Requardt says:

    I also showed that the firewall argument is wrong.

  8. M says:

    The possibility of adding D-branes here and there gave the final shot to the hope of getting predictions from string theory. This was an important development that deserves a prize.

  9. anon says:

    Regarding LIGO and Nobel, I have also heard that the three LIGO pioneers were nominated. It would be strange if they hadn’t been, there are a lot of people who can nominate and LIGO is a big collaboration; I would think that some possible nominators already knew about the coming announcement before the deadline.

    It’s hard to imagine LIGO not getting a Nobel. Maybe the committee just likes to avoid the appearance that they consider nominations based on rumours or inside information, so they want the results to have been public before the nomination deadline.

  10. Peter Woit says:

    Jess,
    I’m sure the LIGO people do each appreciate the $2000, and the small amount of personal recognition. What’s wrong with it?

    To the extent that you’re right that status is zero-sum, that’s part of the problem with giving huge awards to a couple people, nothing to everyone else, what I was trying to point to by calling this a “winner take all” reward system. By deciding to inject these huge awards into the status system, Milner and Zuckerberg are not just making a few people “stars”, but simultaneously lowering the status of everyone else (while at least making some effort to ameliorate the situation in the case of experimental awards).

  11. Peter Woit says:

    Bee,
    Thanks, I should have at least pointed out that there’s no consensus about what this argument even means. About the huge check though, I’m afraid I have to point out to you and Requardt that you’re not string theorists, and thus ineligible.

  12. Peter Woit says:

    M,

    Yes, you’ve got it right. In his acceptance remarks

    https://breakthroughprize.org/Laureates/1/L3795

    Polchinski lists “D-branes, the string landscape, and the black hole firewall” as his contributions to the subject, and states that a unified theory is the main motivation. He explains that since the landscape shows things are “veiled by the randomness of the Multiverse”, that’s why you can’t make predictions.

    Interestingly, the people who awarded him the prize don’t seem to agree. While he thinks he deserves the prize because of the landscape, that work is not mentioned at all in the details about his “Contributions” given to the press.

  13. Bill says:

    Wow, Breakthrough Prize in Science Fiction?

    Sad to see math prize becoming another lifetime achievement award. Although Bourgain has been very active in recent years, the award is clearly not for some particular work. Obviously, previous winners do not have the courage to pick among recent real breakthroughs.

  14. masmadera says:

    Status is a zero-sum game within the community. The award however focuses on outside-community recognition and in this regard I believe that it is working moderately well. The prize is almost as well advertised as a Nobel. The winner-take-it-all is very widespread in American mentality. If this is a necessary/sufficient lure to attract young bright students that otherwise would pursue other careers I don’t know, but the prize is a good addition in that it seeks to provide celebrity status to working scientists, as opposed to the so many science communicators and popularizers that already have this status. Hence, no wonder that many winners (particularly physicists) share in some regards the hype- or over-simplification characteristics of their fellow “science” (communicators) stars.

  15. Bill says:

    The idea of attracting bright young students into science is a bit ridiculous. This and all other awards do more damage at much later stage by disrupting natural development of ideas. People get awards, get positions at top universities, attract better Ph.D. students and postdocs, while publishing mediocre papers in top journals, etc. This is how some areas get overemphasized and overdeveloped, while some perhaps more interesting long term research gets marginalized.

  16. Marco says:

    As much as I appreciated the idea of a prize given to all members of a collaborations (and I know for a fact that the colleagues of my lab working on LIGO/VIRGO do appreciate both the money and the recognition), I’m afraid I have to correct you. There was no award given to the LHC experiment collaborations in a way even close to what is done in 2016 with LIGO/VIRGO. The 2013 Special Breakthrough Prize was directly given to a few individuals (current and former ATLAS and CMS Spokespersons) but not to the collaboration members (then some of our beloved spokespersons decided to use that money to fund a scholarship so that the collaboration “at large” can profit, but this is another – enlightening – story).

  17. Peter Woit says:

    Marco,
    Thanks. I had forgotten that it was only for the two experimental prizes after the LHC one that any money/recognition went to the bulk of the collaborations.

  18. anon says:

    Some of the criticism is getting a bit unreasonable. I agree that there would be better ways to support science with the millions they are spending, but it seems that some people are claiming that these awards are the worst threats to science.

    Bill, I’m getting curious: who would’ve been a (much) better recipient of the mathematics award than Bourgain?

  19. Peter Woit says:

    anon,
    I’d rather not host a discussion here of the relative merits of all research mathematicians. I think Bill was just making a comment about an interesting question: what is the criterion for choosing a math prize winner? The description of the prize just says “rewards significant discoveries” making it sound like it is aimed at rewarding specific results (“breakthroughs”) and that fits with last year’s award to Ian Agol, but the Bourgain prize looked more like an award for a body of work. So, still unclear what their plan is…

  20. Bill says:

    Bourgain is not a bad choice, his (even recent) research is clearly at the absolutely highest level. The best choice would be not to have the award. Second option would be to give instead 10 Horizon prizes worth 300K each. If you must have current format — Yitang Zhang, Scholze, Hacon-McKernan, … many many more come to mind.

  21. anon says:

    For what it’s worth, I think that if a very big award must be given to someone, a life-time award to a senior figure is less damaging than rewarding some new breakthrough. For new breakthroughs I think smaller awards, like the “New Horizons” prizes make more sense.

  22. anon says:

    I didn’t notice Bill’s last comment; I actually agree with what he says.

  23. masmadera says:

    As much as attracting young bright students into science might feel ridiculous to someone (!?) this is one of the main purposes of popularizing science and the role of beloved science programs in TV in luring the attention of bright (or ambitious) kids is well attested. With regards to “People get awards, get positions at top universities, attract better Ph.D. students and postdocs, while publishing mediocre papers in top journals, etc.” I think that Bill has the order totally reversed, at least with respect to the Breakthrough Prizes. I didn’t know that Joe Polchinski, Andy Strominger, and Cumrun Vafa were in need of a position in a top university.

  24. Lars says:

    “The Breakthrough”

    The Breakthrough Prize
    Has broken through
    It’s on the rise
    And in the view

    Though Nobel tolls
    For just a few
    The Breakthrough prize
    Awards a crew

  25. Lars says:

    Though Nobel tolls
    For just a few
    The Breakthrough doles
    To quite a crew

  26. Bill says:

    masmadera, I wasn’t talking about these life time achievement awards. And when some field gets hyped, even lesser people end up at top universities. But actually I agree with you — prizes at every level often go to people and students of people at top universities because of connections.

    I am kind of glad they gave it to string theorists again. The prize is discredited before it had a chance to take off the ground.

  27. Michael Hutchings says:

    It would be nice if they had a million dollar prize for people who haven’t previously won some other million dollar prize.

  28. Gregor Samsa says:

    anon,
    better recipients in mathematics would have been Atiyah, Deligne, Manin, Milnor, Suslin, Tits or Serre. (And as two of my candidates show, my choice is not dictated by Bourgain’s Belgianness…)

  29. David Appell says:

    Jess Riedel says:
    “What is the point of dividing an award up among 1k people? Each one gets $2k….”

    $2k isn’t trivial, for graduate students and postdocs.

    Plus, they get to put it on their resume.

  30. Jess Riedel says:

    David Appel: Building LIGO was a multi-decade project, so $2k is really like $100/year. Insofar as graduate students are getting $2k, that just speaks against awarding everyone in the collaboration equally; it’s like a participation award, or the “cum laude” on a Harvard degree. Lots of people get it, so it’s mostly ignored.

    Peter Woit: I think it would take us too far afield to argue about the foundational purpose of awards, on which we probably disagree. But it seems to me the much important criticism here is what sorts of accomplishments the awards are recognizing, rather than the inequality in award amounts.

  31. Mike says:

    Its an interesting general question how to recognize scientific achievement in a large collaboration. The spokespeople are often too narrow a set and are not always the ones who made crucial technical breakthroughs. On the other hand, not all 1k+ members made equal contributions. This problem is only going to get worse as science becomes more of a team effort so maybe one has to rethink some basic assumptions. Perhaps some kind of two-tier authorship structure is possible, although that of course can also lead to conflicts.

  32. anon says:

    “The prize is discredited before it had a chance to take off the ground.”

    So accurate. With both the senior and the junior prizes (in physics), it is easy to trace very short intellectual paths to a very small number of people at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

  33. Conrad says:

    Who has recently (late 2015!) proved the fairly famous outstanding Vinogradov main Conjecture from the 30’s? (while it’s fairly technical, the gist of it is that a very general of set of Diophantine equations have the expected bounds on the number of solutions – expected by the same heuristic randomness arguments “integers do not conspire subtly” that underlie all the main conjectures in NT – integers obviously conspire since if n is even positive, n+2 cannot be prime but the heuristic says that such are essentially only conspiracies around)

    Clearly qualifies for a recent breakthrough I think

  34. Bill says:

    Why Guth and Demeter are not getting part of this award then?

  35. P = NP (Peace = Nobel Prize) says:

    As a Nobel Prize winner (Peace Prize 2012, 2.5*10^-9 part) I certainly support awards distributed to groups. I have not yet received my portion of the award money, I’m sorry to report.

    On a more serious note, I do, however, not agree that scientific prizes should be used to lure young people into attempting a career in science. It doesn’t seem quite ethical.

  36. Lars says:

    “What is the point of dividing an award up among 1k people? Each one gets $2k….”

    If any of these folks thinks that $2K is a mere pittance, I would be happy to take said pittance off their hands. I’ll even pay the taxes on it.

    They can leave their name and contact information on this blog and I will get in touch.

  37. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    In the (albeit ethically challenged) for-profit world, when the company does well, they often give everyone some kind of a bonus. Not everyone deserves to get anything. Almost no one who deserves something gets a bonus that is commensurate with their contribution, high or low. People complain about this bitterly. If I know a single person who has returned the money or donated it all publicly to a worthy cause in protest, I will eat an earthworm, raw and without condiments.

    Something typically is better than nothing. Token recognition isn’t worthless, however irksome the inequities of real life. I think it’s great to put more pressure on the Prizes to do a better job of recognizing big teams than they’re doing, but I think that aspect of the Breakthrough Prize is a big step in the right direction.

  38. anon says:

    I think you guys here are a bit deluded concerning the fundamental physics prize. The people who won these awards this year and in the past (both junior and senior) are highly respected for their fundamental contributions and the intellectual fertility they have brought to the fields of cond-mat, hep-th, hep-ph, astro-ph and gr-qc. They are known and respected by almost everyone active in the field, and these are tens of thousands of people, surely not all of them with direct links to Princeton. If you don’t believe this you can try to setup some opinion polls. And this is what matters. You can’t argue that there is conspiracy which involves 10000 people. It’s true that there are many other deserving people who have not yet gotten the prize but people who got are truly top (and hopefully other deserving people will get their prizes in the future).

  39. Peter Woit says:

    anon,
    I think if you poll groups of physicists and ask them whether they would choose six string theorists for the first three $3 million prizes in theoretical fundamental physics, you’re only going to get a non-zero number in agreement if you are polling a string theory group (or, maybe a group of initial award winners chosen by Milner and dominated by string theorists…).

  40. Bill says:

    Q1: Do the winners of the 2017 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, interpreted as a lifetime achievement award, deserve the prize as much as any other physicist you can think of (excluding previous Nobel prize laureates)? Vote here:

    http://vote.pollcode.com/75474954

    Q2: Do the winners of the 2017 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, interpreted as an award for work in the last 10-15 years, deserve the prize as much as any other physicist you can think of? Vote here:

    http://vote.pollcode.com/64254698

  41. anon says:

    Bill: Your poll in incorrect, on two counts. First, you must poll the experts in fundamental physics, which are people regularly publishing in cond-mat, hep-th, hep-ph, astro-ph and gr-qc. Amateurs are excluded, sorry. Second, it might be that every one of us has a personal hero who we would put higher than this year’s prize winners. This proves nothing, as these sets of personal heroes might be highly nonoverlapping. I only claimed that this years winners are highly respected and it’s totally non-controversial in the community that they got it – this is what needs to be polled.

  42. anon says:

    Peter: it just so happens that this prize is called “fundamental physics prize”, and that string theory is grappling with fundamental physics questions. It would be surprising if you found 6 atmospheric scientists among the winners, but 6 people who worked on string theory is OK. Also you can’t dismiss as ‘string theorists’ people like Witten or Polyakov or Maldacena who command all of theoretical physicists. Working from time to time on string theory is their choice, just like at other times they can be seen working on issues in condensed matter physics or QFT or cosmology or what not. There are also many people in the group of winners who have nothing to do with string theory nor IAS, certainly more than half by now. Since this years winners were presumably chosen by majority voting, you can’t dismiss it as Princeton people who vote for their friends.

  43. Jeff M says:

    I am really curious what the “fundamental contribution” are that were made by the winners? What was the last experimentally verified prediction in HEP? The top quark? In 1973? The winners this year probably weren’t even in high school then. Sure, they spit out papers, but what from those paper is established physics? It’s certainly possible something done by one of the winners might eventually become real physics, but personally I’m willing to bet very little does. Maybe nothing. I have a feeling 100 years from now they will all be a footnote, sort of like all the theorists who spent decades working on the aether.

  44. Peter Woit says:

    anon,
    The first nine winners were chosen by Milner personally, and given his own lack of expertise he made an understandable choice to choose a lot of IAS people. The six theorists chosen since then (Polyakov, Green, Schwarz, Polchinski, Strominger) are not so much Princeton-centric (Princeton now has a shortage of string theorists without million-dollar checks), but are uniformly strongly self-identified string theorists. I don’t think polling is needed to know that it’s an absurd claim that it’s “totally non-controversial in the community” of people in fields like hep-ph, cond-math, astro-ph and gr-qc that choosing only string theorists so far makes sense.

    I don’t know what the voting system being used is, but obviously there now is only one very large homogeneous block amongst the people voting, and it looks like they’ve decided to vote for their own tribe. Put differently, for instance, among this large group I think there’s at most one condensed matter theorist (Kitaev), so not surprising that condensed matter theorists are not being chosen.

    Your conviction that well-known string theorists “command all of theoretical physics” and do the best work in fields like condensed matter and cosmology is one you might want to discuss with theorists in those fields to find out what they think.

  45. anon says:

    Dear Jeff M. May I ask you, are you are a practicing physicist, and in which field? I am, for example, a staff member of the CERN theoretical physics department. So I can presumably tell a valuable theoretical contribution from nonsense. Concerning your questions about verified predictions and when they were made. Inflation was developed in early 80’s, Weinberg’s discussion of nonzero cosmological constant was in 1987. MSW effect was first discussed in the 80’s. There are tons of less dramatic predictions in HEP which are made and verified every day at LHC and other colliders.

  46. anon says:

    Correction: “command all of theoretical physicists”->”command all of theoretical physics” 🙂

  47. Johannes says:

    Peter,

    when will the results of this year’s LHC searches for supersymmetry be announced? Are there already rumors?

  48. Bill says:

    anon, that’s why I included “close enough” option. If you have a personal hero but think that the winners are deserving and highly respected, vote close enough.

    If the Fields Medal was almost always given to, let’s say, algebraic geometers then it would have no credibility, although it would still be a much more reasonable situation than giving all fundamental physics prizes to string theorists. Give me an example of one great idea of Polchinski that is relevant in physics in some proven way, or at least some great theoretical calculation or technique that influenced other developments that are relevant in physics in some proven way? Or even genuinely influenced great developments in mathematics?

  49. Peter Woit says:

    Jeff M,

    There’s a case to be made that because of the lack of experimentally verified advances, you now need to be rewarding the best ones that are promising but not yet verified. I don’t see though the justification for what the Breakthrough Prize people are sometimes doing, which is rewarding failed ideas, ones that are much less promising now than when they came out.

    A very odd thing about these prizes, especially this year’s physics prizes, is that there is no explanation publicly given of what the prizes are rewarding (just a meaningless hype phrase “transformative advances in quantum field theory, string theory, and quantum gravity”). The Nobel Prizes (and most others) come with a very detailed and carefully written extensive description of the work that is being rewarded by the prize, but there is nothing like that here. The press did receive before the announcement a document that described “Contributions” for each physicist. I quoted a bit of this, and I’ve seen some of it appear in places like the UCSB press release about Polchinski. But this material was very poorly written and hype-ridden, with no detail. This is an odd situation, I would have expected that part of the job of the committee choosing these people was to write up an explanation of why they were chosen.

  50. anon says:

    Bill: I’m not gonna vote because I don’t want to see my vote drowned in the tons of amateurs frequenting this blog. Make another poll where the participants will have to testify, on honor, that you published say more than 10 papers in the above-mentioned arxiv categories over the course of your life.

    I won’t enter into a discussion of Polchinski’s contributions because any blog discussion of this type will not do justice. But you can easily go to INSPIRE, look up the list of his papers, check out the better cited ones and you will see that many of them don’t even have to do with string theory, but with various aspects of QFT.

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