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Stephen Hawking, CERN Physicists Receive Millions in Prize Money

11 December 2012 6:05 pm
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NASA/Wikimedia

Flying high. Physicist Stephen Hawking, shown here aboard NASA's "vomit comet" aircraft in 2007, has won a $3 million prize.

For the second time this year, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner, who made his fortune in Silicon Valley, has showered millions of dollars on prominent physicists through his brainchild, the Fundamental Physics Prize. And whereas the first round of awards sparked controversy, this time the winners are, if anything, a bit predictable, other researchers say.

Stephen Hawking, the famed British theorist who predicted that black holes would radiate, receives one of the two $3 million prizes announced today. The second goes to seven physicists whose efforts helped unearth the long-sought Higgs boson, which was discovered in July at the world's biggest atom-smasher, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the European particle physics lab, CERN, near Geneva, Switzerland.

The CERN seven include: Lyn Evans of Imperial College London, who led construction of the LHC; Fabiola Gianotti of CERN, who serves as spokesperson for the 3000 scientists working with the massive ATLAS particle detector; and Joseph Incandela of the University of California (UC), Santa Barbara, who serves as spokesperson for the 3000 scientists working with the CMS particle detector. In July, the CMS and ATLAS teams independently reported that they had seen a particle that appears to be the Higgs boson. Also sharing the award are Peter Jenni of CERN, the former ATLAS spokesperson, and Guido Tonelli of the University of Pisa in Italy, Tejinder Virdee of Imperial College London, and Michel Della Negra of Imperial College London, all former CMS spokespersons.

"It was a huge surprise," Incandela says. "When I was first told about it, I was literally speechless." In honoring the spokespersons of the two detector collaborations, the prize committee has taken a stab at the thorny question of how to hand out laurels for a discovery that was made by large teams of people. And the recipients seem to have interpreted the award in that way. "For me, this prize belongs to the collaboration," Gianotti says.

In fact, both Incandela and Gianotti say they intend to give their shares of the prize money to their collaborations in some way. For example, Incandela says that it might be possible to use it to establish an annual award to recognize an outstanding junior member of the collaboration. Gianotti suggests her winnings might serve to start an endowment that would provide a boost to economically disadvantaged young researchers hoping to work at CERN.

The choices seem less controversial than those made personally by Milner in July. Then, Milner gave nine theorists—mainly string theorists—$3 million each. Many science fans hailed the prizes as overdue recognition for deep thinkers. But some observers complained that the awards went to people who were already relatively famous and overemphasized the accomplishments of string theory, which remains experimentally untested. "There's this complete imbalance between the public perception of string theory and what's actually been accomplished in the field," says Peter Woit, a mathematician and physics blogger at Columbia University. "This just drops a huge amount of money on the wrong side of that."

This time, the nine previous winners selected the new honorees. And in some regards, their choices were obvious. "Hawking? He's one of the great physicists of this age," says Matthew Strassler, a theoretical physicist and blogger at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey.

On the other hand, both Woit and Strassler question how much giving the awards to already fairly prominent researchers benefits the field. "Does Hawking need more money and more recognition?" Woit says. Strassler says: "Sinking this kind of money into institution building and young people could be transformative. So this [pair of awards] isn't bad. It is just not as good as it could be."

However, Milner's foundation did award more modest New Horizons in Physics Prizes of $100,000 to each of three young theorists—Niklas Beisert of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich; Davide Gaiotto of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Canada; and Zohar Komargodski of the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel.

It also announced the nominees for the next $3 million Fundamental Physics Prize, which will be awarded in March. They include Joseph Polchinski, a string theorist at UC Santa Barbara, and Alexander Polyakov, a string theorist at Princeton University. Also nominated were Charles Kane of the University of Pennsylvania, Laurens Molenkamp of the University of Würzburg in Germany, and Shoucheng Zhang of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, who work on solids called topological insulators.

The losers of that competition get $300,000.

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