Thought Experiments


Prize Without Proof? Yuri Milner’s Fundamental Physics Prize

The Nobel Prize may be the most prestigious award in science, but the new Fundamental Physics Prize is by far the world’s most lucrative scientific award, instantly making its first winners this August multimillionaires. But the size of the payout isn’t the only difference between the two prizes: Unlike the Nobel, the Fundamental Physics Prize can be awarded for research that has not yet been verified by experiment. Is it foolhardy to extol work later findings might prove wrong?

The Fundamental Physics Prize is the brainchild of Russian tycoon Yuri Milner, a one-time physics graduate student turned billionaire investor in internet companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Groupon and Zynga. Milner personally selected the inaugural class of nine winners, each of whom received $3 million, roughly three times as much as a Nobel grant.

Although some of the work recognized by this year’s awards has been experimentally verified (for example, the principles of quantum computers are firmly grounded in experiment), others, like string theory, which compares elementary particles to loops of vibrating string, and the holographic principle, which suggests that our three-dimensional reality is a projection of information stored on a far-off two-dimensional surface, live further out on a theoretical limb.

Ideas like these may not get experimental verification any time soon, either. Take string theory. As Fundamental Physics Prize winner Ashoke Sen, a string theorist at the Harish-Chandra Research Institute in India, explains, “Unfortunately the strings are so small that the energy required for seeing these structures is huge, much larger that what we have achieved in the present day accelerators.”

Yet many physicists (including, unsurprisingly, some Milner honorees) argue that unverified ideas, and even ideas that are unverifiable with today’s technology, are prizeworthy—even if future tests should prove them wrong.

“Many of the most important developments in physics involve subjects for which there is little hope of experimental verification anytime soon,” argued cosmologist Alan Guth at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, one of the winners of the Milner prize. Guth invented the theory of cosmological inflation, which suggests our universe expanded staggeringly just a sliver of a second after it was born. This rapid expansion that would help explain, among other things, why the cosmos is so extraordinarily uniform on large scales, with only very tiny variations in the distribution of matter and energy.

In fact, two of the greatest theoretical breakthroughs of the 20th century—Albert Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity—were never honored by a Nobel Prize, said Stanford cosmologist Andrei Linde, another winner of the Fundamental Physics Prize. These ideas changed the world by showing that mass and energy are equivalent and that gravity is a result of mass curving the fabric of space and time. Although Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1921, he was given the prize not for relativity but for describing how light was composed of discrete packets of energy now called photons, because the Nobel committee felt that relativity had not at the time been verified.

“More recently, we have the case of the Higgs particle, with almost 50 years between the theoretical advance and the experimental verification,” Guth added. “If this kind of theoretical work is not respected, then progress in fundamental physics would suffer tremendously.”

Even if theoretical research does lead to a dead end, it can help inform what ultimately prove to be successful ideas, said theoretical physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, a winner of the new prize who has investigated ideas such as extra dimensions of reality and new theories regarding the Higgs particle.

“One of the great developments in physics in the 20th century was the Standard Model of particle physics, which explains particles such as electrons and quarks and gluons,” Arkani-Hamed said. “But before the Standard Model was known to work, there were people exploring lots of other theoretical possibilities that might be consistent with our world. Even if they didn’t pan out, collecting ideas that have a chance of working may help lead to developments like the Standard Model.”

“Wrong” ideas can advance science in other ways, too. “We should keep in mind that Newtonian mechanics was ultimately found to be incorrect, but it nonetheless was a momentous force in driving science forward,” Guth said. “Today there are many developments in physics that are recognized by the community as being important, even though we cannot prove that they are correct.”

As to how the prize-winners might spend their gains, other than paying taxes and mortgages, they often said they were still in shock over the award. “I continue to remind my students that they should not go into physics for the money,” Guth said.

Go Deeper
Editor’s picks for further reading

Fundamental Physics Prize
The official web site of the Fundamental Physics Prize Foundation.

Nature: Theoretical physicists win massive awards
Geoff Brumfield talks with winners—and critics—of the new prize.

New York Times: 9 Scientists Receive a New Physics Prize
Kenneth Chang reports on the announcement of the Fundamental Physics Prize winners.

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Charles Choi

    Charles Q. Choi has written for Scientific American, The New York Times, Wired, Science and Nature, among others. In his spare time, he has traveled to all seven continents, including scaling the side of an iceberg in Antarctica, investigating mummies from Siberia, snorkeling in the Galapagos, climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, camping in the Outback, avoiding thieves near Shaolin Temple and hunting for mammoth DNA in Yukon.