Physicists are rarely wealthy or famous, but a new prize rewarding research at the field’s cutting edges has made nine of them instant multimillionaires.
The nine are recipients of the Fundamental Physics Prize, established by Yuri Milner. Milner, a Russian physics student who dropped out of graduate school in 1989, earned billions investing in Internet companies like Facebook and Groupon.
“It knocked me off my feet,” said Alan H. Guth PhD ’72, MacVicar Faculty Fellow and professor of physics at MIT, who was among the winners. He came up with the idea of cosmic inflation, that there was a period of extremely rapid expansion in the first instant of the universe.
When he was told of the $3 million prize, he assumed that the money would be shared among the winners. Not so: Instead, each of this year’s nine recipients will receive $3 million, the most lucrative academic prize in the world. The Nobel Prize currently comes with an award of $1.5 million, usually split by two or three people. The Templeton Prize, which honors contributions to understanding spiritual dimensions of life, has been the largest monetary given to an individual, $1.7 million this year.
The $3 million has already appeared in Guth’s bank account, one that originally had a balance of $200. “Suddenly, it said, $3,000,200,” he said. “The bank charged a $12 wire transfer fee, but that was easily affordable.”
Milner said he wanted to recognize advances in delving into the deepest mysteries of physics and the universe.
“This intellectual quest to understand the universe really defines us as human beings,” he said.
Four of the physicists work at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.: Nima Arkani-Hamed, Juan Maldacena, Nathan Seiberg, and Edward Witten. They work on theories trying to tie together the basic particles and forces of the universe, particularly with a mathematical machinery known as string theory.
The other winners are Andrei Linde, a physicist at Stanford who also worked on cosmic inflation; Alexei Kitaev, a professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology who works on quantum computers; Maxim L. Kontsevich, a mathematician at the Institute of Advanced Scientific Studies outside Paris whose abstract mathematical findings proved useful to physicists unraveling string theory; and Ashoke Sen, a string theorist at Harish-Chandra Research Institute in India.
Milner personally selected the inaugural group, but future recipients of the Fundamental Physics Prize, to be awarded annually, will be decided by previous winners.
He declined to explain in detail how he selected which accomplishments to honor or why the winners are all men.
“I truly see this as a start,” Milner said. “Going forward, it’s going to be up to the committee to make those considerations.”
According to the rules, the prize in future years may be split among multiple winners, and a researcher will be able to win more than once. Milner also announced that there would be a $100,000 prize to honor promising young researchers.
Unlike the Nobel in physics, the Fundamental Physics Prize can be awarded to scientists whose ideas have not yet been verified by experiments, which often occurs decades later. Sometimes a radical new idea “really deserves recognition right away because it expands our understanding of at least what is possible,” Milner said.
Arkani-Hamed, for example, has worked on theories about the origin of the Higgs boson, the particle recently discovered at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, and about how that collider could discover new dimensions. None of his theories have been proven yet. He said several were “under strain” because of the new data.
Several of the winners said they hoped that the new prize, with its large cash award, would help raise recognition of physics and draw more students into the field.
“It’ll be great to have this sort of showcase for what’s going on in the subject every year,” Arkani-Hamed said.
The winners said they had not yet decided what to do with their windfall.
“There are some rather mundane things, like paying out the mortgage,” said Kontsevich, who added that he was thinking about putting some of the money into education efforts.
“My success is in large part due to good education, my teachers and the atmosphere of excitement in science when I grew up,” he said. “I might try to help restore this atmosphere as much as I can.” Kontsevich also won a $1 million mathematics prize this year.
Guth agreed. “I do think prizes like this help put across to the public that fundamental physics is important, and it’s not just heavyweight boxing that’s worthy of prizes,” he said.
But he was going to warn his students not to get the wrong idea. “Certainly, it’s still not a great idea to go into physics for the money,” he said.