Milner Prize has generated a "controversy". What is it exactly supposed to mean?
Has someone presented some good reasons why great theoretical physicists shouldn't be getting awards? Or has someone summarized reasons to think that the inaugural winners aren't among the world's top theoretical physicists? If it's neither, what the controversy is about?
It's preposterous and Strassler knows it. There isn't any controversy here, just an indefensible and irrational screaming attempting to diminish the prestige of the greatest academic award in the world. The right word isn't controversy but jealousy.
He continues with this statement:
[String] theory’s been spectacularly over-hyped...But this is a silly laymen's misconception. In reality, the richness of string theory is underestimated even by the enthusiasts, as Edward Witten has pointed out.
In the following sentences, Matt Strassler implicitly tells us that the value of a theory is measured by how much it helps with with his own career. I would kindly and humbly like to point out that the career thirst of a random egotist physicist isn't what determines the validity and the value of physical theories. The repeated comments about "Prof" Matt Strassler's career only help to highlight his ethical inadequacy as a potential judge. And as long as we are talking about personally uninteresting and uncharismatic physicists, no one really cares about their careers, either.
[I]t is high time the ball [in the "string wars"] were grabbed by the referee and placed quietly in the middle of the field where it belongs.Great. Who is the best referee? As long as one is doing science, the best referee is the evidence itself, i.e. the compatibility of the theories with the observations and with the principles extracted from older observations, the theories' inner cohesion, their universal importance and relevance for many questions and phenomena in Nature, their ability to unify concepts and produce lots of insightful "output" out of very little "input", their ability to teach us something that isn't wrong.
Even if we thought that the evidence can't speak for itself and it needs to be personalized (and a real scientist should never think it's the case: he should be able to "hear" the evidence speak for itself), the best referees would be completely different than what Matt Strassler proposes. The best "personalized" referees would be those who have been most successful in extending, accumulating, and cleaning the body of evidence that science (or its relevant discipline, in this case high-energy theoretical physics) possesses. In other words, the best physicists. Because Edward Witten is a significantly more achieved physicist than Matt Strassler, it is more reasonable to listen to Witten's observation that "string theory is underestimated even by the enthusiasts" than to Strassler's insane opinion that "it is over-hyped".
Finally, Strassler suggests that the money similar to the Milner money shouldn't go quite to the best physicists but to those who need more support etc. I obviously disagree with that.
If a prize is supposed to have an elite status and be more than "just another grant", it has to go to the best folks whether or not they have already been awarded, praised, or paid. I am a great fan of Freddy Cachazo and a dozen of other folks whom I could enumerate (but I would surely miss someone) and a great fan of their research, I consider them extraordinary smart and hard-working, but one still needs "at least some time" for Freddy to be in the same league as Witten, Sen, or some other inaugural Milner Prize winners. I am sure that e.g. Freddy has a significant chance to naturally get there and I don't think it's right to distribute the "world's top physicist" prizes before they're justifiable.
Once again, there is a big difference between a "top prize for theoretical physicists" and "grants". There's a lot of fair scientific work that is pretty important, that is valid, and that deserves to be funded and it gets various grants. But Milner didn't create another grant that is paid to some people who may need it; there are lots and lots of grants of this sort. By having found an edible amount of money in his wallet (a concentrated capital that dwarfs competitors for simple numerical reasons), he created something that is designed to be the most important prize for theoretical physicists in the world. If it's supposed to remain credible, it must be given to the top big shots rather than to those who may need it more.
The winners were awarded for top contributions roughly in the last 33 years. ;-) The list of winners also includes people who wouldn't be called "string theorists" but "string theorists" still represent a slight majority of the winners because string theory contributed a majority of the high-energy theoretical physics breakthroughs in the last 33 years. In the past, the most important breakthroughs would be unrelated to string theory (and even unrelated to quantum mechanics) because string theory (and quantum mechanics) was unknown. But once string theory got discovered and its role got clarified, it became clear that the cutting-edge conceptual progress in high-energy theoretical physics has to depend on it (much like it has been obliged to respect the laws of quantum mechanics since the mid 1920s) so the percentage of string-theory-related breakthroughs among the award-deserving new discoveries in theoretical high-energy physics is bound to increase. Such an increase of the fraction of research that depends on the newer theoretical frameworks is an inevitable symptom of physicists' increasingly accurate understanding of the laws of Nature. Physicists have always been looking for more refined frameworks extending (or specializing) the previous frameworks, eliminated the wrong ones, picked those that weren't wrong, and continued to work on and refine the "more special" and "more advanced" theories.
After all, Strassler's (co-authored) most important paper (so far), Klebanov-Strassler, is a string paper, too. Cascading gauge theories as the AdS/CFT dual of some array of branes. Deep stuff.
When we talk about the balls and referees, Yuri Milner has made the most significant step to actually "return the ball back to the referee". In 2012, the main referee was himself, a man who had been learning to become a cutting-edge physicist but he gained impartiality by leaving the field and he showed that he isn't completely incapable of thinking by earning a few billions of dollars, too. ;-) Starting from the 2013 Milner Prize, the referees are 9 of the world's (20?) best living theoretical physicists. I sincerely hope that people will be interested in the next laureates and that this new meritocratic perspective will undo lots of the damage that has been made by the populist, anti-meritocratic, "everyone is equal", "everyone should talk into everything", the "mediocre people should always control the ball", and "everyone should get what he needs" degenerative memes represented by many writers unfortunately including Matt Strassler.
String theory is the indispensable core of the state-of-the-art theoretical high-energy physics – the deepest perspective into the inner workings of the Universe we have and, quite likely, we will ever have – and that's also the reason why it's sensible for it to be connected with the world's largest academic award. A person who doesn't even understand this simple proposition is rather unlikely to produce new insights that would place him or her in the same league with the inaugural Milner Prize laureates. The era when the deepest new insights about the Universe could have been obtained without string theory had already ended several decades ago.
And that's the memo.