Russian tech baron shocks physicists with £3m cash wad

Social network kingpin starts new theoretical physics prize fund worth $27m

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A Russian social-network billionaire has set up a foundation to hand out the biggest prizes in physics history to nine lucky theoretical physicists every year.

Yuri Milner, who's made his billions by founding Mail.ru and going on to invest in web firms like Twitter, Spotify and Facebook, started up the foundation and handed out nine prizes of $3m each almost at once, catching some of the winners by surprise.

The multimillion-dollar awards are more than twice what a Nobel prize-winner takes home and also top other boffin gongs such as the Kavli and Shaw Prizes.

The Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, which has four faculty members among the winners, said in a canned statement that the recipients were "surprised" by the awards.

“We were all thrilled and overwhelmed to have our work recognized in this way. Now we will have to redouble our efforts to make physics at the IAS as exciting as we can make it," said winner Edward Witten, a Charles Simonyi prof who bagged a prize for his work in mathematics and quantum theory.

Apparently, few of the physicists knew they were about to get a phone-call telling them they'd bagged $3m, especially since most of them wouldn't have been expecting any kind of prize at all. Unlike most science awards, the Fundamental Physics Prizes do not require the winner to have discovered supporting data for their theories, giving string theory enthusiasts and supersymmetry fans a look in.

This year, Milner picked the winners himself, but they will all be on a panel next year to choose the top boffins. Since the FPP is a prize physicists can win more than once, it is to be hoped that none of the judges give themselves the award again, although a nomination process should help to stop that – unless they all nominate each other.

Milner is well-known Silicon Valleyer, having started Mail.ru in Russia. Through the company, he invested in US tech start-ups including Zynga and Groupon. He started the foundation and the prizes because of his love of physics, which he studied at university.

"I am delighted to announce the launch of the Fundamental Physics Prize and welcome its first recipients," Milner said in a canned statement. "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."

The winning boffins aren't really required to do much, other than giving some public talks that the foundation hopes to be able to post online. ®


Here's a full list of the prize-winners and their work:

Nima Arkani-Hamed — For original approaches to outstanding problems in particle physics, including the proposal of large extra dimensions, new theories for the Higgs boson, novel realizations of supersymmetry, theories for dark matter, and the exploration of new mathematical structures in gauge theory scattering amplitudes.

Alan Guth — For the invention of inflationary cosmology, and for his contributions to the theory for the generation of cosmological density fluctuations arising from quantum fluctuations in the early universe, and for his ongoing work on the problem of defining probabilities in eternally inflating spacetimes.

Alexei Kitaev — For the theoretical idea of implementing robust quantum memories and fault-tolerant quantum computation using topological quantum phases with anyons and unpaired Majorana modes.

Maxim Konstevich — For numerous contributions which have taken the fruitful interaction between modern theoretical physics and mathematics to new heights, including the development of homological mirror symmetry, and the study of wall-crossing phenomena.

Andrei Linde — For the development of inflationary cosmology, including the theory of new inflation, eternal chaotic inflation and the theory of inflationary multiverse, and for contributing to the development of vacuum stabilization mechanisms in string theory.

Juan Maldacena — For the gauge/gravity duality, relating gravitational physics in a spacetime and quantum field theory on the boundary of the spacetime. This correspondence demonstrates that black holes and quantum mechanics are compatible, resolving the black hole information paradox. It also provides a useful tool for the study of strongly coupled quantum systems, giving insights into a range of problems from high temperature nuclear matter to high temperature superconductors.

Nathan Seiberg — For major contributions to our understanding of quantum field theory and string theory. His exact analysis of supersymmetric quantum field theories led to new and deep insights about their dynamics, with fundamental applications in physics and mathematics.

Ashoke Sen — 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.

Edward Witten — For contributions to physics spanning topics such as new applications of topology to physics, non perturbative duality symmetries, models of particle physics derived from string theory, dark matter detection, and the twistor-string approach to particle scattering amplitudes, as well as numerous applications of quantum field theory to mathematics.

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