News blog

Internet billionaire throws lavish soiree for physicists

Posted on behalf of Zeeya Merali.

And the award for ‘best physicist’ goes to…Alexander Polyakov, of Princeton University in New Jersey. Polyakov was yesterday named the winner of 2013’s whopping US$3-million Fundamental Physics Prize for his early work on developing some of the mathematics behind the quantum-mechanical theory of fields that today underpins the standard model of particle physics.

The announcement concluded a glitzy ceremony in Geneva, Switzerland, that, in the words of its host, actor Morgan Freeman, should be thought of as “like the Oscars — only this time you’re in the presence of some of the greatest thinkers in the world.”

The Foundational Physics Prize was set up last year by Russian Internet entrepreneur Yuri Milner to celebrate recent advances in physics, rather than rewarding only the more established achievements honoured by the Nobels. Polyakov’s contributions that have more recently made an impact on other branches of physics were also cited in his award.

Polyakov’s formalism for a specific type of quantum-field theory, known as a two-dimensional ‘conformal field theory’, is now widely used by theoretical condensed-matter physicists attempting to predict the behaviour of materials in the lab. He also demonstrated that a mathematical tool commonly used in quantum field theory — the path integral formulation — can be carried over to string theory.

“Alexander Polyakov has been a giant in our field for 40 years, so there was really no question that he should have won,” says Joe Polchinski, a physicist at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Polchinski himself also had also been up for the big prize, in part for demonstrating that string theory contains not only the thin threads of energy that its name implies, but also higher-dimensional objects known as D-branes.

Polyakov says that he is “elated” by the award, which vastly outstrips the physics Nobel in monetary value. He plans to spend his winnings on helping people with autism (his son has the disorder), but is undecided over the merits, in general, of giving out such a big sum.

“It is an interesting experiment and I think the prize could have some potential for attracting bright people to physics,” says Polyakov. “Although usually people who are good and have talent will do physics anyway.”

The evening, which included performances by Russian classical pianist Denis Matsuev and British singer Sarah Brightman, along with a surprise satellite link-up to US television talk-show host Charlie Rose in New York, certainly rivalled the Academy Awards for length — but gave Freeman slightly better jokes than Seth MacFarlane. (Referring to other higher-dimensional structures thought to exist in string theory, Freeman pondered whether “P-branes” really exist or are just how mathematical physicists refer to everybody else.)

As consolation for missing out on the big prize, Polchinski picked up a $300,000 Physics Frontiers prize, as did physicists Charles Kane of the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia; Laurens Molenkamp of the University of Wurzberg, Germany; and Shoucheng Zhang of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. The latter three were jointly recognized for the theoretical prediction and experimental discovery of topological insulators — exotic materials that conduct electricity only along their surface.

The Frontiers laureates will be up for the Fundamental Physics Prize again next year, which each year will be selected by the ever-expanding pool of previous winners (dubbed The Fundamentalists by one of last year’s winners, and this year’s selection committee, cosmologist Andrei Linde, also at Stanford).

Stephen Hawking picked up one of two special, pre-announced awards, for his discovery in the 1970s that black holes can radiate energy, as well as for other insights into cosmology. Hawking thanked Milner for recognizing the work of theoretical physicists such as himself, which, at present, lies beyond the reach of experimental tests — and thus may never satisfy the criteria for a Nobel.

Hawking wryly added that some of his work on the prediction that the early Universe underwent a rapid period of inflation could be confirmed later today with the European Space Agency’s scheduled release of cosmic microwave background data taken with the Planck satellite.

But it was CERN’s Fabiola Gianotti who got the biggest laugh as she picked up her share of the second special prize of the evening — which was jointly awarded to seven physicists who led the Higgs hunt at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider. Standing before an audience made up largely of physicists from the nearby particle accelerator, she congratulated their billionaire benefactor, Milner, for achieving the nearly impossible with these awards: “I have never seen so many physicists from CERN so well dressed before,” she said.


Comments are closed.