Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Nine physicists win $27 million in total

The first Milner fundamental physics prize for advances in delving into the deepest mysteries of physics and the universe

One million dollars. Each winner has received three similar piles of paper trash.

Yuri Milner, a graduate physics school dropout, earned a few bucks [interview] via Internet games such as Facebook, Zynga (yes, I was just playing Mafia Wars for a few minutes), and Groupon and created a new prize:
9 Scientists Receive a New Physics Prize (The New York Times)
Each of the nine winners has won $3,000,000, more than twice the Nobel prize. The choice of the winners is very sensible; the selection is impressive, showing that Yuri Milner still understands what's shaking.

The full list of winners include:
Nima Arkani-Hamed
Juan Maldacena
Nathan Seiberg
Edward Witten
Alan Guth
Andrei Linde
Alexei Kitaev
Maxim Kontsevich
Ashoke Sen
This prize will be awarded every year (lots of bucks, indeed) and new winners will be chosen by the previous ones. He must be very rich although sources estimate his wealth as $1 billion "only"; if I were giving away $3 million every year, I would become hungry sooner than 300 years later. ;-)

It's a very good selection, not only because I know most of the new multimillionaires in person. (I can't realize I've ever talked to Alexei Kitaev (the father of the topological quantum computer concept) but I've surely talked to everyone else – and in most cases, many many times.) Concerning the rumors that I was the person who was selecting the winners, I hope that you understand that I am not allowed to say whether the rumors are true.

Alan Guth's office at MIT before he received the prize. Please superimpose this picture onto the picture at the top to get an idea how Alan Guth's office looks today. ;-)

Alan Guth is an ex-student of a 2004-2005 string theory course of mine (he has always had the best questions even though he slept through most of the classes but I didn't take it personally; Alan Guth already announced that his bank charged him $12 when those three millions were added to his account), Nima Arkani-Hamed is a long-time ex-colleague and co-author of mine (I don't want to make it sound much more personal than that because it would sound like licking the buttocks of people who became multimillionaires), and so on. At Rutgers, I've worked next to Maldacena and Seiberg for quite some time.

Of course, all of the winners are theorists and most of them are string theorists. I guess that they may choose more general physicists, too. I think that each of them may deserve a blog entry or several of them that would describe his major contributions to physics.

Congratulations and thanks to Mr Milner for donating several bucks for a prize that seems to start with stellar names, indeed! The prize has instantly become the most lucrative academic prize in the world, beating the Templeton Prize and the Nobel Prize combined.

It's a topic for deep philosophical debates – and your comments – whether or not such huge amounts of money actually help the folks to improve their creativity in the future. I have some doubts about this particular ability of the money; your humble correspondent may be close to Grigori Perelman's idea about the optimum amount of money available to a thinker.

However, I have no doubts that physics needs to gain more authority in the society and creating multimillionaire physicists is a way to do so because most ordinary people understand the concept of the money even if they fail to understand the value of physics. This change of the atmosphere may be immensely good for the society – helping the mankind much more intensely and much more permanently than billions spent by other billionaires for random charities. It's plausible that some of the young people who are starting to work on string theory today will do so mostly because of their dreams to win the Milner prize in the future. While it's not the most innocent and purified motivation, I still think that it's a good thing if that's how many more smart people will be thinking.

There are a few obvious people who deserve a prize with this description, including Stephen Hawking. This Gentleman could be another example, beyond the list of nine physicists at the top, of the important fact (also explicitly stated by Yuri Milner) that people often discover something that is quite obviously true, deep, and spectacularly important but they can't get down-to-Earth prizes such as the Nobel prize because their findings are ahead of their time.

There's also a $100,000 prize for young emerging stars. The smartest young TRF readers may find this amount of money helpful, too.


  1. "Alan Guth already announced that his bank charged him $12 when those three millions were added to his account"

    That gives me an idea... Getting millions from Nigerian princes seems
    implausible to most, but the right target group will certainly think a
    large grant is real ;)

    On a more serious note. The people on the list are people who should
    have no trouble with financing even without this grant. Can they use the
    money in a useful way? Just expanding the number of "apprentices"?

  2. OMG! From Vixra: "Past winners will select future winners
    so we can expect to see a lot of rich people in string theory and
    cosmology in the coming years."

    Can you imagine the crying on NEW? It would even have a point, since there's the possibility of financing one's own research by granting money to someone working on the same thing.

    I obviously don't think any of the listed people would misuse the funds, but just the potential will make some heads explode when they read this.

  3. I don't think that they should be paying salaries for apprentices out of such things and they probably won't. On the other hand, I believe - unlike you - that those folks should have many more apprentices and proteges than they currently have.

    Good luck with your neo-Nigerian project. ;-)

  4. Eh. What's 3 millions after taxes.

  5. I believe those folks won't try to make a uniform clique "by purpose". They would fund whatever other types of ideas that are valuable and eligible for the prize. They are eager to appreciate ideas different than just their own! On the other hand, all these people can recognize bullshit so with the given rules, one really shouldn't expect prizes for loop quantum gravities anytime soon.

    Concerning Woit, I find it more likely that he will start to emphasize that his blog has always praised folks like Witten so he thinks he deserves a part of those $27 million. ;-) His chutzpah knows of no borders, gender, or nationality.

  6. This is cool, I like it :-)))

    And how it will make the sourballs and trolls jump up and down, LOL ... :-P

    Congratulations to the winners :-D !

  7. Right. Taxes are scary. I won't forget of Larry Summers' speech in the physics department when we were celebrating the Nobel Prize for Roy Glauber. Summers proudly boasted that it was exactly his idea to make the Nobel prize taxable; Glauber had to be really grateful to Larry. ;-) I don't know whether prizes such as this one could be non-taxable but you may be surprised.

  8. Unbelievable... by at the same time great news for physics! See, Lubos, you don't have too much to worry about string theory being misrepresented, because the successful and intelligent people in this world can see what a remarkable theory it is.

    I hope he sends you a cheque for a few thousand dollars for the part you've played in publicising events in the physics world ;)

  9. Dear Dopey, I think that I will have to win my own $3 million next year. Your method won't work.

  10. Why "unlike me"? The list is probably the people whose work I would consider most important as well. I've been a bit frustrated with not seeing / understanding the results of N A-H's work for a while, but that's because I think it's the most important development for as long as I've been following physics blogs, not because I don't think he should be working on twistors.

    Hope they'll know how to best use the cash.

    On the Nigerian side, scamming some of the smartest people in the world for twelve bucks each is an idea so crazy it might just work. I think I'll pretend to be an Argentinian supermodel who just inherited a fortune from a rich husband.

  11. Dear JollyJoker, I said "unlike you" because the word "just" in your sentence about the "expansion of the number of apprentices" suggested that you don't think it's valuable enough to expand the number of smart people working on similar things as those who have actually achieved something. Sorry if I misunderstood your sentence but I still understand it in the same way.

  12. It does seem like a ridiculous amount of money. Reminds me of the $100 million bequest to The Poetry Foundation a few years ago.

  13. While I can not claim the same familiarity, technically I have drunk some whisky, in one or other occassion, with half of the members of the foundation board http://www.fundamentalphysicsprize.org/board.html

  14. Dear Luke, it's surely ludicrously high in comparison with what a person needs to live and do research.

    On the other hand, it's exactly the appropriate if not minimum amount to label someone "a person on easy street" who is a clear achiever even from the outsiders' viewpoint.

  15. I meant it as some open-ended speculation on whether there are other things they'd need financing for. As in "or am I missing some obvious other needs?".

    Perhaps I should have used "only" instead of "just"; I'm not sure if that would change the implication. I should probably just be more explicit since I'm not that good at communicating intent or such in English.

  16. I want to comment on your :

    "It's a topic for deep philosophical debates – and your comments –
    whether or not such huge amounts of money actually help the folks to
    improve their creativity in the future. I have some doubts about this
    particular ability of the money; your humble correspondent may be close
    to Grigori Perelman's idea about the optimum amount of money available
    to a thinker. "

    I do not think it will help these particular thinkers think better :). It will help making their personal life easier , but the truth is that most of them must have displayed their creativity by now, and they are very successful in their job appointments. History of science does not show physicists being constructively creative to old age, rather the opposite.

    The value of this type of prizes is as an incentive to the young coming up the ranks, since success measured by money is a main attribute of the western society. It restores a poetic balance in aspirations, that the successful intellectuals also have the possibility of success in money.

  17. Right, mostly agreed (although you may be surprised and should be surprised by what some older chaps are able to do), but a nice summary.

  18. SteveBrooklineMAJul 31, 2012, 4:26:00 PM

    So there will be one winner each year going forward? Nine per year seems like too many too me. How many could you award before seeing a substantial drop-off in quality of the winners? It would be a shame if you had what has happened to the Economics Nobel, where pretty much everyone who should win already has.

  19. I'm disappointed Lubos didn't get the price :-/... Let's hope now that such an amount of money won't create some diversion. Money can change people in a sad way, and people around them.

  20. The problem is that now all of these smart guys have been given prizes, the quality of future recipients will probably have to diminish on average through time.

  21. I think that's obvious. But it may still be a much better value-per-invested-dollar than other things. This extra motivation may bring us great thinkers and results in the future.

  22. You're very kind, Shannon. Some of my additional bold projects will surely have to be fully completed for me to get it next year, but for me, it's probably not gonna be a major driver of the research.

    Yup, there's negative impact of the money, too. Quickly rich people may get spoiled and those who were less lucky or less skillful may also get jealous etc. - there are complicated things that may occur. But there are lots of positive things - and I believe those prevail at the end.

  23. Which half? ;-) Weinberg organized and paid a lunch for me (and others) - a standard procedure - when I was giving a talk in Austin.

    Concerning Milner, I have only eaten repeatedly with his fellow Facebook investor billionaire Peter Thiel (who funded everything in Nice 2010 as well, of course). ;-)

  24. The prize will be 3.000.000 per year. It is only at this beginning that he wanted to choose the committee that seven prizes were given. S Weinberg has agreed to be part of the committee but did not choose the seven, according to http://www.fundamentalphysicsprize.org/news.html.

    New annual US$3 million Fundamental Physics Prize recognizes transformative advances in the field

    Inaugural nine recipients of the Prize receive US$27 million in aggregate, all of whom agree to
    form a Selection Committee to award future prizes

  25. Thanks for the important fix by one order of magnitude, Anna! ;-)

  26. What great news to begin my day! Very few people appreciate the key role that our deepest scientific thinkers have had on making life better and richer for everyone else. Perhaps our theoreticians will regain the recognition that they once had and have always deserved.

  27. LOL. My whole house looks like Alan's office (before the prize). Alan is obviously a genius.

    I'm just a lazy bum who refuses to do any unnecessary (and counter-productive) "tidying" to please others. I'm quite accustomed to my archeological filing system. :-)

  28. Actually that photo must be one of my office:)
    What a great prize, and finally some recognition for theorists---experimenters get most of the Nobel Prizes I find.
    The list does look like one compiled by Lubos, but I ruled that out because Gene and I did not get one of the prizes :)
    The fact that those nine are now the awards committee is also great. It means that great scientists instead of the usual passel of loopy Smolin acolytes dole out the prizes. I agree that Hawking should get one, and so should Penrose (despite Lubos' disparagement of his recent writings), but neither of them need it to boost their prestige and the award is great for younger folks like Nima. Lisa R could also be considered if a female is needed for PC reasons, plus she deserves it.
    But next year, Lubos, get it right. I await my 2013 cheque.....

  29. I agree, Lumo deserves a HUGE bucket of money too :-)

    This good news has put a dumb broad smile on my face that will reemerge whenever I think about it :-D

    Maybe this new physics price will help to mitigate some of the damage the trolls and sourballs have done to fundamental physics :-)

  30. ad Luboš's comment: "It's plausible that some of the young people who are starting to work on
    string theory today will do so mostly because of their dreams to win
    the Milner prize in the future"

    Personally, I do not think that entering any field of science with a material motivation (like winning some money) is going to lead to an advancement in that field: the people who entered the field seeking a material motivation are now modelling stock markets. :)

    On the other hand I entirely agree that having a prestigious prize of this calibre which highlights an outstanding work of (particularly) young people is a great step forward!

  31. On second thought maybe it is not such a ridiculous amount of money. A million dollars isn't what it used to be. Three million puts you in the upper middle class but doesn't make you rich.

  32. unfortunately most people in universities think like you do. this kind of thinking does damage to physics. your argument is wrong in all sorts of ways.

  33. i agree with most of what you said, i mainly disagree with "western society" thing.

    this comes from the typical brainwashing in the greek school system since people are kids that is also the main contribution to the country's current problems.

  34. That's a pretty ridiculous statement. 3 million dollars puts you in the upper middle class?!

    It's not like these people lost their job and have to live off 3 million dollars for the remainder of their lives.
    3 million dollar fortune = rich.

    As for the prize itself: I think it's nice.

  35. I agree with pickaname. $3 million is the very, very upper middle class. ;-) It's the part of the middle class that includes some politicians who populistically talk about their care for the middle class and their membership in this class – politicians who have benefited a lot from this talk and similar things. ;-)

  36. What's it like watching ex-colleagues win millions of dollars, while knowing your personality scuttled your career? That's got to be frustrating, but at least you have pictures of what once was.

  37. As far as I can see nobody from the EU, am I right ? If so, is theoretical physics here so bad ?

  38. I would say that there are very very good physicists of this sort at many places of the EU but it's still true that the very top of the field, the true leaders, are almost entirely affiliated with the U.S. institutions - that's true even for the Russians such as Linde and Kontsevich and it's been true for Sen for some time, too - so EU's having no one among the selected 9 is, in my opinion, compatible with the reality.

    It's not just string theory etc.; inflation and lots of other breakthroughs are linked to the U.S.

  39. I think theoretical physics should be thought of as a global business; for progress and cool break throughs it is NOT important where people are born and at which point on the globe they sit at present.

    Fundamental physics is something nice for the WHOLE humankind :-).

    But yes, I think we have some cool fundamental physics in Europe too ;-)

  40. Peter Woit must be gnashing his teeth 27 million times a day.

  41. Dear Lumo,

    do you know if online articles (about this happy news for example) naturally expire after some days ...?
    There was a Nature article about this new fundamental physics price and now I cant retrieve it when googling for it ... It was reprinted by the Scientific American too.

    Or could it be that they retracted it after I`ve politely expressed my disagreement and disappointment about the fact that the journalist of such an otherwise respectable journal promoted the Trollmaster in this particular article (which he blatantly did) and flagged some subtroll comments for moderator attention ...?

  42. BTW I forgot to say that Maxim Kontsevich obviously sounds Russian and he may spend lots of time in Miami these days, but he's still affiliated with the place where he did most of his work, in IHES South of Paris. So he's the European horse in the race. ;-)