It was Ashoke Sen last year bringing glory to physics and string theory when he was awarded the maiden three million US dollar Fundamental Physics Prize (FPP) instituted by Russian billionaire entrepreneur Yuri Borisovich Milner. Sen was picked up by Milner’s not-for-profit foundation for ‘uncovering striking evidence of strong-weak duality in certain supersymmetric string theories and gauge theories’, opening the path to the realization that all string theories are different limits of the same underlying theory.
This year India and string theory have been recognised again in the Milner awards with the young physicist Shiraz Naval Minwalla from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research bagging the FPP’s $ 100, 000 New Horizons in Physics Prize for his pioneering contribution to the study of string theory and quantum field theory. Minwalla gets the award in particular for his work on the connection between the equations of fluid dynamics and Albert Einstein’s equations of general relativity. Earlier this year, Minwalla was conferred the Nishina Asia Award (worth Japanese Yen 400,000) for “his seminal work which uncovered the deep relation between the equations of fluid dynamics and Einstein’s equations of General Relativity.” He also got the Rs 55 lakh Infosys Foundation Prize in the physical science category this week. (Last year, the Infosys Foundation Prize was valued at Rs 50 lakh.)
[The other scientists who got the Infosys Prize this year are V Ramgopal Rao in the Engineering and Computer Science category, Ayesha Kidwai and Nayanjoti Lahiri in Humanities, Rajesh S Gokhale in Life Sciences, Rahul Pandharipande in Mathematics and Aninhalli R Vasavi in Social Sciences.]
So does this signal a new-found love for string theory, which has been dismissed by critics as a theoretical cul-de-sac that has wasted the academic lives of hundreds of the world’s cleverest men and women? Do these awards mean the critics must stop considering string theory — which seeks to outline the entire structure of the universe in a few brief equations — as an intellectual dead end?
String theorists are clearly regaling in the accolades. Ashoke Sen, called “India’s million dollar scientist” by the media, sounds pretty optimistic. “The recognition for the great work that Minwalla has been doing is also a great achievement for the Indian string community as a whole and is a reflection of the high quality research in string theory taking place in India,” Sen says. He feels these new awards would change the face of science in this country and encourage youngsters to think of research as a fulfilling career. “Prizes like these reflect recognition by the society that science is important,” he says.
To Minwalla, the Milner prizes appear so far to have had a special focus on string theory, “perhaps reflecting Mr. Milner’s personal appreciation of the subject”. “I think this is encouraging for younger string theorists: students in particular. Prizes to Indians are likely to particularly encourage young Indian string theorists,” he said in an e-mail chat.
The physical sciences have been India’s traditional stronghold. Though Indian research in the physical sciences is reasonable, it could be much, much better, Minwalla feels. “The real bottleneck here is that only a small fraction of the 1.2 billion people in our country get a chance to participate in research. This is partly due to poverty, but largely due to the low quality of primary and secondary schooling doled out to the majority of Indians,” according to him. He feels that the paucity of really good colleges compounds the problem. In order to unlock India’s potential in research (as well as many other things) “we need to radically improve our public schools. This, of course, is a big task. ” But one that is surely achievable if tackled with the urgency and priority it deserves.”
At the moment, the young string theorist is trying to understand the dynamics of “nonsupersymmetric Chern-Simons field theories coupled to fundamental and bi-fundamental matter in the large N limit”. The results of this “very specific, detailed and technical question” could feed into bigger qualitative questions which he says he would love to address. One such question is “Can one construct one example of a calcuable non-supersymmetric theory of gravity with a parametric separation of scales between the Planck constant and the cosmological constant?”
Sen hopes more such recognition will come India’s way in future. Here’s wishing our young physicists and string theory more strength.