Opinion

Chrystia Freeland

Russian investor’s $3 million prize for physics

By Chrystia Freeland
August 2, 2012

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 e-mail.

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 that 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.”

Comments
9 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Thank you to Yuri Milner – I hope the popular lectures increase public interest and awareness for all fields of science.

Posted by Decatur | Report as abusive
 

Refreshing.

Posted by Mott | Report as abusive
 

You are a futurist Yuri Milner. Thanks for pointing this out Chrystia.

This is how we could have/should have stimulated advancement with green energy. A combination of Yuri’s generosity and reality T.V. America’s got scientific talent could really inspire a new generation of scientist.

Especially if there is a humanitarian aspect to their scientific endeavors. We should be celebrating science and rewarding those hard working creative minds who better our lives.

Hope this Russian inspires a whole new wave of capitalizing on hidden talents – socked away in basements and labs.

Posted by Butch_from_PA | Report as abusive
 

Excellent. Now, if Mitt Romney were to do something similar I’d have to seriously consider voting for him.

Posted by IntoTheTardis | Report as abusive
 

This story made my day. A rich visionary who dreams of things other than becoming richer. What a blast of fresh air – maybe there is hope for mankind after all. Thank you.

Posted by canuck61 | Report as abusive
 

{Butch: This is how we could have/should have stimulated advancement with green energy.}

No, scientists do not need to be motivated by exaggerated greed. Gallileo wasn’t. Neither Newton nor Darwin.

As regards Green Energy Alternatives, what America needs most is a Carbon Tax that makes alternative energies (namely electric) more attractive to the consumer. Or a subsidy of alternative energy sources.

(I live in France and have installed geothermal heating, thus reducing my electricity consumption by 75%. The French government gave me a tax rebate on the equipment that made it affordable.)

Monetary motivations bring out the worst in people in a competitive spirit influenced by greed. Haven’t we had enough of that in the US? Or are we too stoopid to understand that which is happening about us?

On the one hand, we have people on the streets railing about money-grabbing OnePercenters and on the other hand we have a mindless youth adulating Lady Gaga who is a OnePercenter – like other celebrity rich.

Where is our sense of values when they are only measured by one’s Net Worth?

In the rubbish, I say.

Posted by deLafayette | Report as abusive
 

THE ROMNEY GUY

{ … if Mitt Romney were to do something similar I’d have to seriously consider voting for him.}

Romney is clueless about how to stimulate the economy. Consider this:{(AP) WASHINGTON – Mitt Romney says the Federal Reserve shouldn’t use new stimulus measures to boost the still-sluggish economy.

The Republican presidential hopeful says he doesn’t think another round of stimulus would help the economy, arguing that previous measures didn’t work.

Romney tells CNN’s “State of the Union” in an interview scheduled to air Sunday morning that business incentives are preferable to more government intervention.}

The first round of Stimulus Spending, early on in the Obama Administration (2009) helped cap unemployment at 10%. Because we have too little appreciation of our own Economic History, we do not understand that unemployment could have attained the heights of that Great Depression (20/25%) had stimulus spending not been enacted.

Furthermore, the Romney Guy says Business Incentives are necessary. This guy is a businessman? What motivates businesses to hire people? Goodwill? Nope. A tax incentive? Yes, but it depends. It depends upon what?

It depends upon their order-book. Meaning if they can meet Consumer Demand with present resources, no “incentive” is going to induce them to hire employees. It’s as simple as that and has been for the past two years.

And if there is insufficient Consumer Demand, what could be the reason? It is not the cost of money, because lowering interest rates has had no effect whatsoever on Demand. It is because of Consumer Psychology, meaning the economy is telling them to Save and not Spend. Why’s that?

Because when unemployment is high we all have an inherent fear of being the next-to-go. If so, how do we lower employment numbers and reduce that inhibition to spend more freely?

One guess … Stimulus Spending, preferably on infrastructure projects that put lots of people back to work and thus spending their Salaries that is now much larger than their Unemployment Insurance. This stimulates spending even further as consumer mentalities change.

MY POINT?

Let’s not be duped. The Rabid-Right, who maneuvered the T-Party (T for Troglodyte) into the HofR, has had since two years only one objective in mind. To keep unemployment as high as possible in order to impact negatively upon Obama’s reelection.

Think of all those Americans who have remained unemployed or under-employed all these years since the Great Recession started in 2009. Just because a group of incredibly selfish individuals want to regain the Oval Office. But why?

In order to make sure that nobody touches the Tax Code to do away with their loopholes or increase taxation to levels that existed before Reckless Ronnie reduced them from above 70% (now at half that amount).

FINAL POINT

Here’s how the TenPercenters have increased their “take” on income over the past forty years:

1970 — 31,51%
1980 — 32,87%
1990 — 38,84%
2000 — 43,11%
2010 — 46,26%
(From World Top Income Database, T. Piketty)

They now obtain nearly half the income our economy generates! And the Romney Guy wants to keep it that way!

FOOTNOTE

In a high-tax country, such as Europe, the taxation seen above would be between 30 and 33% of Total Income. Which is a way to assure that Public Services in Europe afford one of the finest National Health Services in the world; far, far better than the US. And their children do not graduate from post-secondary schooling with a debt-albatross (of about $20k) around their neck as happens in the US.

But we can’t have that of course. Because that’s “socialism” – the Devil’s Handiwork …

Posted by deLafayette | Report as abusive
 

I’m glad to see somebody with money put their money where their mouth is. It goes to show not all of the 1 percent are evil doers.

Posted by Byron5 | Report as abusive
 

Kudos to the winners and to the wealthy intellectual who recognizes the importance and scarcity of advanced thinking.

Posted by breezinthru | Report as abusive
 

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