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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

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

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