Russian Gazillionaire Lobs Money at Theoretical Physicists

Staff Writer

David Lee Roth, the sometimes singer for the legendary rock band Van Halen, supposedly once remarked: "Money can't buy you happiness, but it can buy you a yacht big enough to pull up right alongside it." If so, then nine theoretical physicists can now afford to join the next-to-happiness flotilla, thanks to the generosity of Russian billionaire Yuri Milner. Milner has personally chosen the nine to receive the inaugural Fundamental Physics Prizes, which were announced today, awarding each of them $3 million - about two-and-a-half times as much as a Nobel Prize.

The nine multimillionaires are: Nima Arkani-Hamed of Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) in Princeton, New Jersey; Alan Guth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge; Alexei Kitaev of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena; Maxim Kontsevich of the Institute of Advanced Scientific Studies in Bures-sur-Yvette, France; Andrei Linde of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California; Juan Maldacena of IAS; Nathan Seiberg of IAS; Ashoke Sen of the Harish-Chandra Research Institute in Allahabad, India; and Edward Witten of IAS.

The nature of the prize stands in stark contrast to that of the Nobel, which typically lauds breakthroughs only after they have been thoroughly tested and confirmed, sometimes decades after the original advance. In contrast, the Fundamental Physics Prize appears to target conceptual advances, as six of the nine laureates work on string theory, a conceptual framework that assumes that fundamental particles are actually tiny vibrating strings and that is notorious in some circles for being practically impossible to test experimentally.

The prize has grabbed headlines around the world. But it has also stirred up controversy on blogs, as others debate the effects of such large prizes on the practice of physics. "One wonders about the implications of this for the future of theoretical physics," wrote Peter Woit, a blogger and Columbia University mathematician who has been critical of string theory. "[W]hy should young theorists work on unpopular ideas and/or try hard to find testable ones? That will get you only $500K $400K, and there's $3 million to be had if you work instead on the a speculative and untestable idea that you see on TV."

For his part, Milner says he hopes the new prize will push physics forward. "I hope the new prize will bring long overdue recognition to the greatest minds working in the field of fundamental physics, and if this helps encourage young people to be inspired by science, I will be deeply gratified," he said in a statement posted to the prize's Web page.

Of course, the implication that the nine theorists cited are not fully appreciated seems a bit of a stretch. In 2004, Witten was named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people. And Guth has appeared in numerous television shows.

Even the assumption that theoretical physics gets the short shrift seems at odds with the data. In a completely unscientific survey of three other science writers (not specialists in physics), all three could easily identify Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg, and Niels Bohr (notable theoreticians all). None of them, however, correctly identified three nitty-gritty experimentalists: James Chadwick (the discoverer of the neutron), Arno Penzias (co-discoverer of the cosmic microwave background), or Frederick Reines (co-discoverer of the neutrino).

Posted in People & Events, Physics