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Get Rich Quick: Study Physics, Win a Prize

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Cash prizes for physics

Credit: © Maria Toutoudaki/iStockphoto

Three million dollars may be small potatoes for an Internet billionaire, but it’s a lot of money for a physicist. Yesterday the Milner Foundation, founded by tech investor Yuri Milner, announced that it had awarded its inaugural Fundamental Physics Prize to nine researchers, along with a cash award of $3 million. That’s $3 million apiece, mind you, not divvied among the lot of them as is the case for a Nobel Prize.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology cosmologist Alan Guth, who developed the concept of cosmic inflation to explain the earliest moments of the universe’s expansion, told the New York Times that the money had already reached his bank account, which had previously carried a balance of $200. (One presumes that the good professor has other, fuller accounts.) “Suddenly, it said, $3,000,200,” he told the newspaper. “The bank charged a $12 wire transfer fee, but that was easily affordable.”

Milner’s initial burst of largesse certainly made a splash, but in future years the prize will be a bit thriftier. A spokesperson for the prize organization says that in the future the foundation will only award one prize per year, although the selection committee retains the option to grant an additional, special prize.

The Fundamental Physics Prize is just the latest accolade for physicists of various stripes, but it’s the largest cash award by a wide margin. The chart below compares some of the big-money prizes in physics, nanoscience, astronomy and cosmology, along with the cash award attached to each. (Omitted is the $1.7-million Templeton Prize, which many physicists have won but which recognizes all manner of individuals for “affirming life’s spiritual dimension.”) Most of these prizes are relative newcomers—the Gruber Cosmology Prize was first awarded in 2000, the Shaw Prize in Astronomy in 2004, and the Kavli Prizes in Astrophysics and Nanoscience in 2008.

Many physicists have already won more than one—Guth and Andrei Linde of Stanford University, for instance, shared the 2004 Gruber Cosmology Prize for their work on cosmic inflation. Now both are $3 million wealthier as Fundamental Physics Prize laureates. Guth and Linde provide further proof that physics and economics are polar opposites as sciences—in physics, inflation makes you rich.

Most lucrative physics prizes

About the Author: John Matson is an associate editor at Scientific American focusing on space, physics and mathematics. Follow on Twitter @jmtsn.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. rloldershaw 10:36 am 08/2/2012

    I agree that donating money to the cause of scientific research aimed at bettering our understanding of nature is a wonderful thing to do.

    My only complaint is that all the money went to celebrity physicists who have given us the physics equivalent of the “bridge to nowhere”, i.e., failed string theory (no predictions in 44 years), failed “WIMP” cosmology (decades of negative results), and failed supersymmetry theory (LHC has falsified everything predicted so far).

    If you like the status quo glass-bead games, that’s your choice. But if you want theoretical physics to wake up from its long period of torpor, I suggest you fund younger physicists who are willing to explore new paradigms.

    Robert L. Oldershaw

    Fractal Cosmology

    Discrete Scale Relativity

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  2. 2. dadster 6:18 pm 08/2/2012

    prize givers should consider fields like microbiology , bio-chemistry, life-sciences and bio-sciences, fields which are potent with more promises than just fundamental material physics.

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  3. 3. Postman1 8:12 pm 08/3/2012

    dadster – Right you are! Those are the fields in which a new discovery may benefit all mankind immediately. Physics, on the other hand, I find extremely interesting, but I don’t see any new discovery or theory having any effect on our everyday lives. $27 million might provide the impetus needed for that cure for a cancer, or alzheimer’s disease. I don’t begrudge physicists the money, but would like to see the same for the medical fields.

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  4. 4. Cosmoknot 2:23 pm 08/7/2012

    Wow, all that money for developing an unsupportable theory that sidesteps the fact that another theory doesn’t work.

    See, that’s great that they can congratulate each other.

    The real prize will go to whoever debunks the Big Bang and the imaginary conflict between the two ends of physics.

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