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Breakthrough Prizes apparently degenerating into another Hollywood-style piece of junk

When Yuri Milner gave $27 million to nine physicists more than three years ago, I was absolutely impressed. An award for the scientists who are actually appreciated by the most well-informed insiders was apparently born.

Be sure that it's not just because I knew most of the winners very well. The choice just seemed even more enlightened than the choices made while distributing the Nobel prizes in physics which I still consider unusually good. My excitement about the new template continued when some new winners were added, and so on.




A year later, Mark Zuckerberg joined Yuri Milner and donated their first Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics. Although I am not quite as excited by that adjacent field, the choices seemed similarly stellar, as far as I could say. A similar prize, funded by the two guys as well as about 3 more wealthy persons including Google's Sergey Brin, went to life sciences. I have no expertise to judge those prizes but I wanted to assume it was analogously good to what I knew from the physics (and partially mathematics) prizes.




Sometime during the weekend, the ceremony in the Silicon Valley resembled the Oscars and similar events, apparently with all the pretense that I associate with those events.

Here are the winners.
The main mathematics prize went to Ian Agol – who has mostly worked on the topology of 3-dimensional manifolds. I have some problems to believe that he's in the same league as Maxim Kontsevich and previous winners – but if you want an excited presentation of his contributions, read this 2012 Quanta Magazine article. Five individual biologists won an award in life sciences. I won't comment on that at all.

But what happened in physics is sad. No less than seven experimental spokespersons for five experiments – representing 1370 members – have received the award. Moreover, all the experiments were neutrino experiments. This is just wrong, wrong, wrong from every possible perspective I can imagine. Let me mention just a few perspectives.

Actual scientific contributions vs politics

It's always problematic to reward large teams because the boss of the team is mostly a political position. Some leaders of experiments – especially in the distant past – have actually done some highly nontrivial things for which they deserve to be appreciated. But in most cases, bosses and spokespeople are being elected just like other politicians, for their personal relationships with other people, and luck and indifference plays a big role in the selection. Sometimes shoulders help, too – that's the worst possible thing to appreciate as "science".



Christina Aguilera (a famous actress or musician or model or tennis player or whatever she is) and folks like that. Is this tabloid composition involving well-known people far away from science helpful for science? I don't think so. In fact, it reinforces the stereotype that empty skulls like that are "above" scientists, including the top ones, so it's a victory for the latter to meet the former. And this Hilary Swank – I don't know the name even passively – is really annoying. She's there to promote science among the young people. In reality, she doesn't promote it even for herself! And the words about "especially girls" are just distasteful. What's really terrible is that similar hypocritical hollow skulls are beginning to shape the prize.

Neutrinos: independently unjustifiable Nobel-like timing

Neutrinos have been believed to exist – at least by some physicists – from the analyses of the beta-decay more than 80 years ago. The energy conservation law was vindicated when they were observed a few decades later. They became the "ghostly" brothers of the charged leptons in the electroweak doublets. Neutrinos are nearly invisible but important enough particles so that 270 blog posts on this blog contain the word "neutrino".

But these recent experiments – especially the oscillation ones – did most of the work some 15 years ago. It is perfectly plausible that the Nobel prize committee suddenly chooses to appreciate that work in 2015. The Nobel prizes usually arrive with some delay, it has to be some number, and 15 or so years is as good a number as any other.

However, it is not too plausible that a meritocratically chosen different prize will just manage to pick the best candidates and they will happen to be the neutrino experiments on the same year when the neutrino experiments got the Nobel prize. It seems self-evident to me that the Breakthrough Prize in Physics was actually just parroting the Nobel prize. And that's a very bad standard.

Neutrinos: illogical clumping of experiments that did very different things

The 2015 Nobel prize for neutrinos has rewarded two experiments. The Breakthrough Prize extended this list to the "big five" neutrino experiments. They're more inclusive but at this point, the prize just became meaningless. They have pretty much rewarded the whole neutrino experimental subfield. It's extremely bad because such a selection is extremely collectivist. It's also extremely bad because all the other subfields failed to be rewarded although they may be better.

Neutrinos: overhyping a subfield far from the frontier

It brings me to the following point: the neutrino experiments aren't really the cutting edge of particle physics. What is true is that after the brutal reduction of particle physics in the U.S. in recent years, the neutrino research became the top discipline at which America is actually good. That's despite the fact that the most important, Nobel-prize-winning experiments were located in Canada and Japan. It's plausible that in a few years, neutrino experiments will be the only "memory" of the old fame of big particle physics in the U.S.

But I feel that by rewarding the neutrino research, the prize committee is actually rewarding "the field on which America's experimental particle physics is probably going to focus in the near future". So they have rewarded the real-world future U.S. particle physics. And that's terrible. Just because America won't be allowed to do something else doesn't mean that this field will be interesting, important, or more valuable than other fields.

So even if I accepted that it's OK to reward political leaders of many experiments or even whole subfields of physics, and I surely don't accept that, it would still be terrible because the subfield that was collectively rewarded was clearly chosen according to all the wrong criteria. The fact that the U.S. has basically left the Big Physics with the highest-energy collider and related experiments doesn't mean that this exit was in any way good and its replacements deserve to be praised or pretended as the cutting edge of physics. The neutrino research isn't the cutting edge of physics and the fact that for America, it will become the main specialization, means that America has lost its leadership in experimental particle physics. Try to pretend whatever you want but what has happened to experimental particle physics in America is no good.



Using his Italian finger, Leonardo Senatore is explaining a cosmological point to Alan Guth. Fuzzy photograph by your humble correspondent. We (some folks from the field in Greater Boston) were going to a cosmology conference at Columbia University.

At the end, the New Horizon Prizes seem a bit more sensible. I know Leonardo Senatore well enough from Harvard. There are people like that who deserve such prizes although I can't claim that the selection was much better than any conceivable choice of similar people. Mathematician Peter Scholze rejected his $100,000 junior Breakthrough Prize. Applause.

However, I can't get rid of the impression that while the first Milner physics prizes were chosen by someone who really cares about the field and follows it, the selection of the newest Breakthrough Prizes was done by the kind of ordinary folks who don't specificially care about physics or science or mathematics much, who know about those fields only from superficial texts in the media written by a class of tendentious morons (the so-called journalists), who feel that hypocritical events like those in Hollywood are their environment of choice, and who don't hesitate to parrot some other committees when they decide about prizes.

Right now, the Breakthrough Prizes may be distributing a greater amount of money than the Nobel prizes but it seems that the Nobel prizes will ultimately remain the more serious ones among the two while the Breakthrough Prizes are likely to turn into another kitsch.

I find it very unfortunate especially when I think about some extremely bright authors of some very good papers who badly wanted to stay in the field but they couldn't. During a brainstorming with some elite people in Prague on Saturday night, I learned about this fate of a female physicist whom I know much more closely than most readers are imagining.

Just to be sure, huge concentrated prizes for people who may be said to be the peers of Edward Witten or Stephen Hawking were my preferred algorithm. But when I see what happened with the $22 million of the newest Breakthrough Prizes, it would seem much better to divide this money to some 50 scientists (including 20 top young theoretical physicists) who could continue their research for a decade. Scientists who don't necessarily love to attend Hollywood-style events that are all about appearances. I find it very likely that the female physicists I mentioned would have received this modified prize now or in the recent or coming years.



Ryan Chester, a high school student, has also received $400,000 for this 7-minute video introduction to special relativity; $250,000 out of the money will go to Ryan's pocket. Fun video – and it's full of "reference frames" which are nice words LOL – but I think that the reward is excessive and unreasonable, too. It's another prize that is designed to blur the difference between Hollywood-style appearances and profound scientific discoveries. Ryan is surely clever, coherent, and handsome but I think that this video is far from solid evidence that he's going to be an important scientist or something like that (and the hint that he's most excited about the superfast space travel makes me think "probably not"). It's still just "slightly advanced" high school stuff. And the money he got exceeds the wages of most of the incredible theoretical physicist postdocs during their whole postdoc era.

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