An internet investment tycoon has just announced the Fundamental Physics Prize, a new award to be presented annually to theoretical physicists. These physicists need not have proven their theories; to have dreamed big seems to be sufficient.
The winners each get $3 million, which is more than double the cash outlay of an individual Nobel Prize and triple other well-known science awards. While the prize founder, Yuri Milner, selected this year's nine winners himself, future winners will be selected by a committee comprised of former prize recipients. They will also award $100,000 New Horizons in Physics Prizes to up-and-coming junior researchers. All winners will be invited (but not required) to give a talk, which the prize foundation will make available, with supporting materials, to the public.
In the Nature article I read about the prize, Milner is quoted as saying that he wanted "to say that science is as important as shares trading on Wall Street." Seems pretty laudable to me.
On the other hand, I can see a few potential problems with the prize. By having prize winners select future winners, does that reward people who reinforce each others' ideas, nullifying the idea of rewarding cutting edge thinking? Are there issues that will arise with rewarding people whose ideas can't be tested, a key component of scientific inquiry in most other fields? Do we diminish what I'll call the down-and-dirty scientists who come up with solutions to real-world problems by so compensating the "idea guys," or is knowledge for knowledge's sake a good thing for us all to nurture?
Great questions, Kirstin! I wondered if Yuri Milner has thought this through too. A Russian physics student who dropped out of graduate school in 1989 and later earned billions investing in Internet companies like Facebook and Groupon must have some wishful thought that he had continued his education.
I look forward to reading the responses to this controversial discusssion topic. I did enjoy reading about the Laureates and the variety of problems they were working on.
This may temporarily stimulate interest in Physics for our K-12 students, but I still don't think I could advise them to go into Physics for the money. :-)
It's entirely up to Yuri Milner what field he chooses to give the award in, of course, but I was a little surprised that he chose physics, since there's already a Nobel Prize in that field (which is what his awards program has been likened to). There are no Nobel Prizes in biology and mathemetics, for example -- I think this fact surprises a lot of people because it's generally assumed that Nobel Prizes are the top award anyone can get in any field, when that isn't true.
While there are other big-name awards researchers can get in biology and math, I think it would have been more exciting (for me at least!) if Milner had chosen to establish his program in one of those fields. His program is already attracting a lot of attention for the sheer amount of money he's giving away, and having it be in either biology or math would have attracted some of the media attention toward those fields.