Physicists have eye on new £1.9m prize

A Russian billionaire and former physicist has awarded nine scientists prizes of $3 million (£1.9 million) each for their work in fundamental physics.

July 31, 2012

The value of the Fundamental Physics Prize, funded by businessman Yuri Milner, exceeds that of the Nobel Prize, which stood at 8 million Swedish krona (£750,000) in 2012.

It also tops the largest prize previously available to an individual academic, the £1.1 million annual Templeton Prize for those contributing “to affirming life’s spiritual dimension”.

Unlike the Nobel Prize, theories do not have to be verified experimentally to be worthy of the award. The scientists can also win more than once, and there is no limit to how many researchers the cash can be split between.

According to the Milner Foundation, the award aims to provide the recipients with more freedom and opportunity to pursue even greater future accomplishments.

Although this year’s nine recipients were selected personally by Mr Milner, the group of winners will now form a committee to select each year’s future laureate from nominations made online.

Three separate £100,000 prizes will also be awarded annually to promising young researchers and, in exceptional cases, a special fundamental physics prize may also be awarded at any time, without the need for prior nomination.

Two of this year’s winners, Alan Guth, professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Andrei Linde, professor of physics at Stanford University, were recognised for their work on cosmic inflation of the universe.

Nathan Seiberg and Edward Witten, string theorists from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, were further recipients alongside their colleagues Nima Arkani-Hamed and Juan Maldacena, for their work in particle physics and quantum gravity respectively.

Other recipients were Ashoke Sen, a string theorist at the Harish-Chandra Research Institute in India; Alexei Kitaev, professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology; and Maxim Kontsevich, a mathematician at the Institute of Advanced Scientific Studies in France.

Mr Milner, who made his billions investing in internet companies such as Facebook, Groupon and Twitter, said he hoped the prize would raise awareness about fundamental physics, which aims to understand the basic laws of nature.

“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,” he said.

The Russian businessman, whose net worth stands at around $1 billion, graduated from Moscow State University in 1985 with an advanced degree in theoretical physics.

He then embarked on physics research at the Russian Academy of Sciences before leaving to take up an MBA at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School.

All prize recipients will be asked to engage with the public, presenting talks on subjects ranging from the basics of modern physics to cutting-edge research and making lectures and support materials freely available.

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