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You're reading: Russian investor’s $3 million prize for physics

NEW YORK - Do you think cutting-edge scientists should earn as much as star athletes, celebrity artists or Wall Street bankers? The Russian billionaire investor Yuri Milner does, and this week he put his money where his heart is.

Milner deposited $3 million in the bank accounts of each of
the nine theoretical physicists he judged to be doing the most
brilliant work in their field. They are the first recipients of
the Fundamental Physics Prize, a new honor created by Milner. It
is the most lucrative academic award in the world, and will
henceforth be given to one winner each year.

Milner, who studied physics for a decade before making his
fortune in prescient Internet investments, said he decided to
create such a rich prize because he thinks the compensation of
top scientists is out of whack in 21st-century society.

“I wanted this amount to be meaningful,” Milner said by
telephone from Moscow. “I think top scientists need to be
compensated at a different scale in society. Somebody with
experience will tell you that true scientists are not motivated
by money – they are motivated by the quest itself. That is true.
But I think an additional recognition will not hurt.”

The sums certainly made an impact on their recipients.

“I was really stunned. It didn’t seem real,” said Alan Guth,
a professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology. “It is hard to believe when someone calls you and
says you’ve won a $3 million prize.”

Guth first learned of the award two weeks ago. The money was
wired to his bank account a week later. Guth said he suspected
the organizers understood that physicists might be suspicious of
a cold call from an unknown man with a Russian accent asking for
their bank account details so he could transfer $3 million. So
another winner, Nima Arkani-Hamed, called Guth and let him know
what was coming. Milner phoned the next day.

Arkani-Hamed was just as astonished when he first heard
about the prize. “Of course, I was flabbergasted, both by the
incredible generosity of the prize as well as by being included
in a list with so many heroes of the field,” he wrote in an
email.

The prize springs from Milner’s intense passion for physics
and his belief that it is one of the pursuits that defines and
ennobles us as human beings.

“Science is one of a handful of things that defines us as a
very special species,” Milner said. “It is amazing how far we
have been able to get and how accurate our predictions are. I
think understanding how the universe was born is very important.
It really gives us a perspective on many things.”

That’s why his award focuses on theoreticians, including
those whose work has not been verified by experiments, and on
ideas which may have no practical use – at least not one we can
think of yet.

“It is hard to think of practical applications of the black
hole,” Milner said. “Because practical applications are so
remote, many people assume we should not be interested. But this
quest to understand the world is what defines us as human
beings.”

Future winners will be chosen by previous recipients, but
the inaugural group was selected by Milner himself. He is modest
about his own scientific talents. Physics, he said “was not for
me. Looking at where I am today, I think I was not qualified
enough. You truly have to be very, very smart and very, very
hard-working.”

But Guth said he was “very impressed” by Milner’s list: “It
did surprise me he did as well as he did.”

A major goal of the awards is to raise public awareness of
physics, partly through the popular lecture each winner will be
invited to deliver.

“This is an encouragement for them to do a public talk and
explain what physics is about,” Milner said. “The problem is
that modern fundamental physics is so far from you and me.

“The mathematics has become so much more complicated that
you need at least 10 years to understand it,” he said.
“Fundamental physics has advanced so far from the understanding
of most people that there is really a big disconnect.”

That is a problem, he believes, and not only because it
deprives so many of us of an understanding of one of the most
beautiful and consequential human undertakings.

Big future discoveries in physics will require massive,
global public investment, and we will be prepared to support
that only if we understand what our scientists are up to. The
winners, Milner said, were enthusiastic about this part of the
project.

These are grand ambitions. But the question Guth has been
asked most often this past week is what he will do with his
prize. He sighed gently when I put that query to him yet again.

“My wife and I talked about it a little but then decided
we’re too dazed,” he said. “When we get over the shock, we’ll
decide what to do.”

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