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The Almighty Buck The Internet Science

Internet Billionaire Creates Huge Physics Prize 192

Posted by Soulskill
from the dollars-for-science dept.
gbrumfiel writes "Billionaire Internet entrepreneur Yuri Milner has spontaneously awarded $3 million prizes to nine prominent theoretical physicists. The new Fundamental Physics Prize dwarfs awards like the Nobel, which this year is estimated to be worth some $1.2 million (and that's before it's split by up to three winners). It's so much money that some theorists fear it could distort the field. Milner says that his only purpose for the new prize was to promote the field, which he studied in the 1980s: 'The intention was to say that science is as important as a shares rating on Wall Street,' he told Nature."
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Internet Billionaire Creates Huge Physics Prize

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  • by Saija (1114681)
    Could this be a boost for the fusion everyone here on /. are waiting for?
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Splab (574204)

      I don't get why we pour so much money into fusion. We have a perfectly fine tested method of doing nuclear power safely using a thorium reactor.

      I mean fusion would definitely be a nice spiffy technology, but we know how to do nuclear safely and cleanly; cheap enough to clean up the world, I think estimates on a fully functional reactor (in the US) would be around $10bn - (or we could wait for the Chinese to be done with their design and ask if we can play with their toys).

      • Re:Fusion (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Baloroth (2370816) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @04:14PM (#40833527)

        We have a perfectly fine tested method of doing nuclear power safely using a thorium reactor.

        Actually, no. There are many thorium reactors in development, but there are no well-tested designs at all yet, so we don't really know how safe they will end up being (in theory, pebble-bed reactors are perfectly safe, non-contaminating too, but they turned out not to be quite so good in practice). And at best, they are no-where near as good as fusion could be.

        • Re:Fusion (Score:4, Informative)

          by Splab (574204) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @04:24PM (#40833659)

          Yes there is; in the 60s or 70s the US had a fully operational reactor. Kirk Sorensen has some very interesting talks about the history of the US nuclear program and why the reactor was scrapped (think weapons program and something as simple as a guy didn't like another) .

          • Re:Fusion (Score:5, Funny)

            by gman003 (1693318) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @04:34PM (#40833803)

            "Fully operational" doesn't mean "well-tested, safe and reliable".

            Just look at the Death Star.

            Fully operational? Yes. Able to be blown up by craft a fraction of 1% of it's size? Twice in a row, even.

            • by EdIII (1114411)

              Ummm.. in all fairness the 2nd time around there were huge gaping holes in an unfinished Death Star and that was still protected by a huge energy shield. Not to mention a hidden fleet of Star Destroyers. If that Death Star had been finished you know it would not have contained any ridiculous vulnerabilities like that.

              What took down the 2nd Death Star, more than anything else, was a bunch of furry little superstitious midgets with primitive weapons. Totally plausible.

              That would be like a nuclear reactor b

              • Re:Fusion (Score:4, Informative)

                by es330td (964170) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @05:06PM (#40834351)
                I seem to recall the Emperor stating "Now witness the firepower of this fully ARMED and OPERATIONAL battle station!" I think the unfinished portions and shield were to lure the rebel fleet into thinking it was vulnerable. The Star Destroyers were there to trap the fleet in a pincer move.
                • yeah.. the armament was operational, not the entire death star. It wasn't like there was a huge gaping hole in the side that was big enough for to fly through or anything.

              • Everyone knows that if Darth hadn't thrown the emperor down the power shaft nothing would have happened to it. We all saw when he hit bottom that big power spike that destabilized the entire power grid allowing what would normally be an insignificant hit by the Millennium Falcon to trigger a catastrophic failure.

                Oh wait, are we using arguments from a made up fantasy scifi movie to justify reasoning in a real world conversation? Thought so... just checking.

                • by EdIII (1114411)

                  Oh wait, are we using arguments from a made up fantasy scifi movie to justify reasoning in a real world conversation? Thought so... just checking.

                  Ahhh, the life of the party just arrived. This is Slashdot, so yes we are.

                  In any case, it is no more or less valid than of the bullshit arguments and logic that our legislators are using.

          • by Baloroth (2370816)

            As an experiment, yes. There were also a few reactors that simply used modifications on existing uranium designs, but those don't really have most of the proposed advantages of thorium. We won't really know if they work well in practice outside a limited-run experiment until they start getting deployed on a commercial scale, which they haven't yet, especially the "no-meltdown LFTR" design. It's unfortunate they weren't pursued earlier, and I do believe they serve as a useful stop-gap until we get to fusion

            • by Immerman (2627577)

              Now I may be misremembering, but I seem to recall that one of the early test reactor cores was in fact a LFTR, or something very similar, and was kept in continuous operation for several months or years. Granted it's still a research reactor, and there's all the surrounding tech to worry about, and scaling issues which may manifest, but from what I've seen the theory suggests that LFTRs should be *extremely* stable, and even the worst-case meltdown scenarios for most designs compare favorably to moderate-l

      • While I agree that a large part of the reason that LTFRs got shitcanned was because the warmongers found out that you can't use them to make nuclear bombs (since the fuel pretty much stays until absolutely everything is completely burnt, with wastes removed by sparging fluorine gas to create volatile fluorides, there is no plutonium to extract), there is still the corrosion problem.

        They used the most corrosion resistant alloys then known for the LFTR testbed and still found serious corrosion problems onc
      • I don't get why we pour so much money into fusion.

        Two Words: Energy Density. And two other words: "Fuel Availability"

      • Re:Fusion (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Immerman (2627577) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @06:32PM (#40835471)

        Even the cleanest, most efficient thorium reactors would produce hazardous waste in the spent fuel, much less than a uranium reactor, and it would only take a few hundred years to decay to safe radiation levels instead of a few hundred thousand like current uranium reactors, but that's still a pretty big stretch to call them "clean". Fusion on the other hand has no spent fuel issue to deal with at all, and there are several potential reactions that could be harnessed that produce no significant neutron flux either, though they mostly involve cross-sections unlikely to be conductive to use in the tokamak-based reactors that are the current focus of main stream fusion research.

        In the short-term though, yeah, Thorium makes far more sense, and the readily-available ore deposits should last us a least several centuries, plenty of time to move towards something more sustainable. Yes, a ton of granite contains as much energy in Thorium as 50 tons of coal, but extracting it is likely to be difficult and environmentally damaging (not nearly as bad as coal mining, but still) Do we really want to go that route when there's an unlimited, virtually free, and truly clean fuel supply in Hydrogen just a Manhattan Project worth of funding away? One whose "spent fuel" is inert helium gas, a valuable resource in it's own right? Think airships - the required quantities are large enough that the cost difference between hydrogen and helium is a large part of the reason the industry mostly died with the Hindenburg, and once it enters the atmosphere helium rapidly escapes to space, so unlike iron, silicon, etc it's a consumable resource.

        Plus, if the Polywell fusion research goes well we may actually be closer to having fusion reactors than Thorium ones - the US Navy has kept a pretty tight lid on it, but the minimal status updates [wikipedia.org] indicate that the latest generation test reactor shows that the phenomenal scaling law predicted by Bussard's theory is holding (1000x more fusion events for 8x stronger magnetic field), and they should be testing the viability of p-B11 reactions this year, if they haven't already. The next proposed step would be a full-size (10m) energy-positive test reactor. Actually that was the last proposed step, but instead they got funding for this intermediate reactor to test the scaling laws, and which is hopefully capable of reaching the energy levels needed to initiate p-B11 fusion, which would *really* get people interested since it's something mainstream tokamak-based research is unlikely to be able to manage.

        • by qeveren (318805)

          I'm pretty certain that aneutronic fusion is still way, way out of our reach, so you do have a nuclear waste problem. Namely your reaction vessel.

    • by Khashishi (775369)

      Fusion isn't really concerned with fundamental physics. We are studying the complex phenomena inside a fusion reactor, which is very far from the deepest level of reality. In fact, most of what goes on in a fusion reactor can be described using classical physics. That doesn't mean it's simple.

  • 27 MILLION DOLLARS (Score:5, Informative)

    by mrbene (1380531) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @03:59PM (#40833319)
    It wasn't clear to me in the synopsis. However, reading the award site, it's clear that Yuri has given 27 million dollars - 3 million to each of 9 winners.
  • by Spy Handler (822350) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @04:01PM (#40833345) Homepage Journal

    "How can I get in on this action?" as in, i want some of that money too!

    It's so much money that some theorists fear it could distort the field.

    I call BS. Smart young students that gravitated toward something wall street-ish might rethink and go into quantum physics instead.

    • So you're saying it's a wall street gravity distortion field?

    • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @04:28PM (#40833713) Journal

      While it would be nice to stem (honestly, unintentional) the brain-drain into designing ever more esoteric securities, I have to wonder whether the allocation in prize form is the best way to do that:

      Specifically, does physics have a bigger problem with promising people who have done good work(the sort who would stand to win prizes) slacking off and/or selling out, or does it have a bigger problem with fresh blood burning out or selling out during the (by all accounts) highly arduous and ill-compensated PhD/postdoc stage?

      It is my (admittedly, quite possibly naive) suspicion that you would be more likely to get more and better physics done by spending relatively modest per-person amounts, but doing so predictably, in order to ease the path for aspiring physicists, rather than offering low-probability jackpots to those who have already done notable work. Especially if you can't compete with the magnitude of the low-probability jackpots offered by Wall Street, it seems like you'd be better off focusing on the areas of the field where people have effectively zero money and thus a very high marginal utility per additional dollar...

      • I'll bet it would! Instead of giving $3 million each to 9 people he could have given $50,000 each to 540 physicists. How many physicists are there in the world? The number probably isn't very large if you include only PhDs. A quick google says that there are about 1500 new physics PhDs each year (I don't know if that number is limited to one country). It would have much less personal impact, but probably a greater emotional impact on the entire field to give $1000 each to 27,000 physics PhDs.
      • by Immerman (2627577)

        Ahh, but you're overlooking the psychological appeal of the jackpot - no rational person would buy lottery tickets - the expected return on investment (prize * probability of winning) is almost always dramatically less than the cost of the ticket. For some reason "maybe" triggers an *extreme* motivational response in most higher mammals, humans included, with dopamine levels peaking when there's a 50% chance of payoff (much research has gone into making gambling machines give a *perceived* payoff near the o

    • by The Master Control P (655590) <<ejkeever> <at> <nerdshack.com>> on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @05:52PM (#40834941)
      I am a physicist.

      Almost none of us who get PhDs and go through postdocs in the hard sciences do it for the money, we do it because we love our chosen field.

      Because you'd be retarded to go through this much effort and sacrifice if you didn't love your field.

      That being said, as university, science, education and national lab budgets keep taking it up the ass year after year (while budgets for the police state, the War on Drugs, the Pentagon and old people's entitlements remain sacrosanct), I'm not surprised that some physicists would jump ship. It must be nice being well paid from the start, and not having the teabaggers that control half of Congress trying to destroy the institute you work for.
      • by shutdown -p now (807394) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @10:03PM (#40837201) Journal

        That being said, as university, science, education and national lab budgets keep taking it up the ass year after year (while budgets for the police state, the War on Drugs, the Pentagon and old people's entitlements remain sacrosanct), I'm not surprised that some physicists would jump ship. It must be nice being well paid from the start, and not having the teabaggers that control half of Congress trying to destroy the institute you work for.

        This is something I really don't understand. Okay, so I can see how theoretical science can be a political hard sell in a populist democracy. But what about applied?

        I mean, seriously, here's a country that's the single biggest consumer of energy, with all predictions showing that it'll only grow, and a hefty chunk of it comes from sources that are 1) dirty and 2) foreign. Furthermore, it is a country that has already went through the energy crisis caused by withdrawal of said foreign sources.

        Now come the guys who say that they have an energy source that's clean as mountain water, uses the single most abundant element in the universe as fuel, and provides better energy output than anything that's currently running. What more, their math and physics check out - all the base theoretical work is already done! - and now it's just an issue of getting it to production, and there are already perspective approaches outlined, being investigated, and showing results closer and closer to the goal every year - even with the lackluster funding that they currently have. And the guys say that for $100B, they can probably make it work in a decade...

        Okay, so say in practice it's more likely end up being $300B and two decades - but even so? Given the ultimate goal - clean, practically limitless energy - this is chump change! Who in their sane mind wouldn't invest in that? Especially when you're pissing away three times more than that within a decade on a war on the other side of the globe with no meaningful purpose, no achievable goals, and which seems to consist mostly of blowing up camels and tents with cruise missiles worth $150k a pop. And yet - does any candidate for president has even the mention of fusion in their political program? Do either of the two major political parties?

        The current priorities are beyond idiotic, they are outright insane.

        • I mean, seriously, here's a country that's the single biggest consumer of energy, with all predictions showing that it'll only grow, and a hefty chunk of it comes from sources that are 1) dirty and 2) foreign. Furthermore, it is a country that has already went through the energy crisis caused by withdrawal of said foreign sources.

          You're approaching this from a rational perspective of someone who sees that the world is really old and will still be here for a long time.

          Now try pretending that you think J

          • by elucido (870205)

            I mean, seriously, here's a country that's the single biggest consumer of energy, with all predictions showing that it'll only grow, and a hefty chunk of it comes from sources that are 1) dirty and 2) foreign. Furthermore, it is a country that has already went through the energy crisis caused by withdrawal of said foreign sources.

            You're approaching this from a rational perspective of someone who sees that the world is really old and will still be here for a long time.

            Now try pretending that you think Jesus will magic you into heaven Real Soon Now. Because that's exactly what the end-times fundie Christians are about. It just so happens to provide a convenient excuse for destructive, short-term thinking as well..

            There are other rational perspectives. Why should young people care about any of that stuff when the older leadership don't care about them? Why would you care about the future children when the current children are treated like crap and the future children are only expected to be treated worse? Most people are going to try to get what they can from life and unless there are significant incentives to do the right thing don't expect people to care.

            Yes energy is important if you care about the growth of soci

        • by qeveren (318805)

          The average American doesn't understand the implications of much of the scientific study that goes on, therefore it's useless and the money could be spent "on more important things".

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      "How can I get in on this action?" as in, i want some of that money too!

      It's so much money that some theorists fear it could distort the field.

      I call BS. Smart young students that gravitated toward something wall street-ish might rethink and go into quantum physics instead.

      It's funny how that is never quoted as a reason not to inflate a CEO's pay package. "We can't increase his salary as it may distort his running of the company".

    • by Badge 17 (613974) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @06:02PM (#40835073)

      Unfortunately, no. Many intelligent young students are already going into high-energy theory and string theory (the primary recipients of this prize). In fact, there are far more students than jobs. I'm a recent PhD from a top physics (and particularly string theory) school. My classmates in string and high energy theory who recently applied for postdocs applied to 100 in order to receive 1 job offer; none of their jobs were in the U.S. These are not permanent jobs; they are usually 2 or 3 year positions, paying $40,000 or so. At the end of this time, you may then enter the lottery for the (literally) one string theory faculty job per year (see http://www.math.columbia.edu/~woit/wordpress/?p=4701 [columbia.edu] for job statistics). This is what causes students to leave to go to Wall Street, and piping in more money to the already-established best of the best of the field will not change this.

      The purpose of this award seems to be to raise the profile of so-called "fundamental" theoretical physics; perhaps it will cause more funding to be directed in that direction, which might be good. More likely, it will simply encourage more optimistic, talented students to step into the meat grinder of a particularly depressed job market, making it even worse, and eventually redirecting another generation's best minds into Wall Street.

      I'm not saying don't celebrate physics (I love physics, and am continuing in the field, though on a much more applied topic, where there is more funding) - but there is already enough hype for string theory, and it burns out enough students already.

    • by IrquiM (471313)
      This is no BS - we'll now probably see bankers moving into quantum physics too!
  • "Fear it could distort the field." Feh. Anyone who has gone through a physics education (or chemistry, for that matter) knows how much weight is given to Nobel prizes. (It's a huge amount - prize winners and their winning discoveries are mentioned constantly.) If this $3 million prize turned into a regular thing instead of a one-off, then it most certainly would distort things. The question is whether this prize would be a positive influence (like the Nobel), inspiring people who work in basic research, or
    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I would argue that the Nobel prize's value isn't in the 1M, it doesn't hurt but the real value is multi-faceted.

      1. Recognition from all peers / world
      2. Instant grant funding of future endeavors.
      3. Pushing the boundaries on the field you studied

      The money is nice, but all the recognition, and realistically something you could retire and do professorship off of, is a nice perk (including a prime parking spot in stanford!)

  • by Andrewkov (140579) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @04:03PM (#40833377)
    some theorists fear it could distort the field

    Spoken like a true theoretical physicist.
    • Re:Field Distortion (Score:5, Interesting)

      by skids (119237) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @04:20PM (#40833603) Homepage

      Hrm. I wonder if there is such a thing as a cash singularity. So much cash in one place that it just keeps drawing in cash from around it, past an event horizon, never to be seen again. Oh wait. That totally explains a whole lot of things. Scary.

      • by aliquis (678370)

        US war budget and Apple?

      • by treeves (963993)

        But it would be a 'red hole' instead of a 'black hole' since red represents financial loss.
        What would be analogous to the Hawking radiation? Little dividends?

      • by Tom (822)

        We've had a close encounter with such a black hole just recently, and you wonder if it exists?

        Look, my country is currently putting billions of Euros into bailout funds all around. A few years ago, they were cutting social security to save a couple millions. The real story here has been missed by the mainstream media completely - that without so much as blinking, our politicians have raised the amount of money they're throwing around by an order of magnitude (or three, if you speak as an engineer). Had you

  • by PeterM from Berkeley (15510) <(petermardahl) (at) (yahoo.com)> on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @04:03PM (#40833381) Journal

    This guy's mistake is selecting too few winners and giving them too much.

    If he wants to promote the field, he needs to make the rewards more broadly available: i.e., instead of 3, $3M awards, how about 300 $30,000 awards? It's enough to provide good incentive while not removing the need of the winners to ever have to work again!

    That's the problem with the current economic model. A few "winners" at the top and everyone else lives on the crumbs.
    Consider, those "winners" are maybe only .1% better than the next guy below him.

    But the next guy below him? His reward is NOTHING, not $2M.

    How about you make "winners" out of the top 50% instead instead of just the infinitesimal ever-so-slightly-better????

    --PeterM

    • by Stiletto (12066) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @04:10PM (#40833487)

      Good point. I'd guess it's the screwed up mentality that comes from working in Venture Capital: It's better for one or two companies in your portfolio to make-it-huge than for 50 companies to have modest, but sustainable returns. He's just applying the same concept to this contest.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      instead of 3, $3M awards, how about 300 $30,000 awards?

      Probably because finding and awarding funds to a few exceptional physicists is a lot easier than 300 physicists. Due to ridiculous tax laws, it isn't always easy to just give someone a bunch of money.

      It's enough to provide good incentive while not removing the need of the winners to ever have to work again!

      A theoretical physicist who "never has to work again" can potentially crank out more physics than one who does.

      • by Fjandr (66656)

        Yeah, the latter point was my immediate thought. People don't go into hard sciences because they love money, they go into hard sciences because they love the science (or the difficulty of the work in general; for the point the difference doesn't matter).

        Those who reach the point where they no longer have the practical worry of where their next paycheck is coming from aren't going to stop working. That's simply not how most people tick, the stereotypical foolish lottery winner aside.

      • by pijokela (462279)

        It's enough to provide good incentive while not removing the need of the winners to ever have to work again!

        A theoretical physicist who "never has to work again" can potentially crank out more physics than one who does.

        This is exactly what we need: more scientists that are rich enough to study whatever they find interesting and promising instead of only the subject they can get funding for. Some will probably pursue a subject that yields nothing, but still I would trust selecting important study subjects to the winners instead of some grant organization that only wants to pursue the current hot topic.

        Just find the best possible people and give them freedom to do whatever they want.

    • This guy's mistake is selecting too few winners and giving them too much.

      You know what? YOU can go out and become an internet billionaire, and then do a physics prize right. Imagine how embarrassed he'll be when you do it the right way.

      ~Loyal

      • by DM9290 (797337)

        This guy's mistake is selecting too few winners and giving them too much.

        You know what? YOU can go out and become an internet billionaire, and then do a physics prize right. Imagine how embarrassed he'll be when you do it the right way.

        ~Loyal

        You miss the point.

        It isn't about whether or not he has the RIGHT to give away his money. It is about whether giving away money in this way is going to promote or actually REDUCE the amount of science being done.

        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Stiletto (12066)

          You're missing his point: People who have lots of money are smarter than the rest of us and always know better how to spend it.

          Yes, people actually believe this.

          • by BeanThere (28381)

            Way to hijack a discussion of the relative merits of his approach to drive an off-topic political agenda. And a pure straw-man argument, to boot.

      • You know what? YOU can go out and become an internet billionaire, and then do a physics prize right. Imagine how embarrassed he'll be when you do it the right way.

        You don't have to be a baker to know when the bread is stale.

    • by mrbene (1380531)

      Prizes

      • Fundamental Physics Prize — US$3,000,000;
      • New Horizons in Physics Prize — US$100,000.

      From the rules [fundamenta...sprize.org], there's provision to really spread around the wealth with the US$100,000 awards.

      • by Donwulff (27374)

        The provision to REALLY spread the wealth around is the rule "Can be shared by any number of people;". Ie. a research team with 12 members could easily get it. And why limit yourself to research teams? Presumably only nominations are the limit, so why not nominate "Everybody graduated from Berkeley" or "Everybody with letter E in their full name". Granted, the award would then be quite little, and think of the bureaucracy... They're supposed to accept online nominations, however.

        There were some posts about

    • by Thud457 (234763) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @04:36PM (#40833845) Homepage Journal
      Do you know how much RAMEN that will buy?!!!
      That's enough to feed me for ten thousand years !
      I might just have seconds.
    • by BeanThere (28381)

      Yeah, I might feel a bit shitty right now if I was the tenth-best theoretical physicist in the field.

    • True, but it's certainly easier to find 9 truly excellent physicists based on their published work, positions, and respect from their peers. It's much harder to evaluate and vet 300 worthy scientists.

    • by Yvanhoe (564877)
      On the other hand, prizes like the Nobel are not just about money. If they manage to get a similar reputation, it gives good scientists in the field a weight and authority in scientific debates that they would have not if each year the prize was awarded to 300 people. Within a generation, their would more prize recipients than there are MIT graduates.
    • by Immerman (2627577)

      Actually I think you're wrong - motivation skews in completely irrational ways around probability. I would bet that lottery ticket sales would plummet if you had a 100x better chance of winning 100x less money. $30K is a nice chunk of change, probably several months salary for most "white-collar" workers in any field. As such it would be really nice to have, but not life-altering. $3M on the other hand would let you retire if you wanted, or throw wild parties where you snort cocaine off the bellies of

  • It's so much money that some jealous theorists fear it could distort the field.

    FTFY

  • by K. S. Kyosuke (729550) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @04:17PM (#40833557)

    It's so much money that some theorists fear it could distort the field.

    I predict that a scientific paper with the title "The harmful distortion of the vector field of physics effected by highly concentrated monetary charge" will win the competing prize in the next year. That is, if they were talking about distorting the field of prizes for physics. I've heard these are highly competitive and violent about it, even more than the British dentists.

  • Wrong Headline (Score:4, Informative)

    by Quantum_Infinity (2038086) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @04:18PM (#40833583)
    That's not a huge physics prize, it's the biggest physics prize.
  • Interesting that his entire fortune is based on ripping off (admittedly) others ideas and companies, is now giving back so much, which in reality isn't that much at all at 2.7% of his net worth, still better than nothing.

    • by Fjandr (66656)

      As a one-off, yes, it's insignificant. As a yearly prize it becomes a much more significant sum of money. Most importantly, it's small enough to be sustainable barring bad investments and/or another market meltdown.

  • by wierd_w (1375923) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @04:37PM (#40833853)

    While one off prizes for fundemental research is nice and all, it doesn't really help the art.

    Here's what I would do instead.

    I would organize some private organizations around my parent country as a pilot program, with the goal of making expensive lab equipment and utilities available to the researchers, with the goal of driving down the innate costs to perform the research.

    "Grant money" is the cancerous vice that kills academia. It makes professors steal the thunder of brilliant students. It makes people distort reeported findings. It stifles controversial findings being published. It kills the bread and butter of real science, which is the repeated testing of published experiments for veracity.

    And without it, no research at all would get done.

    As a philanthropist seeking to promote science, I wouldn't contribute to the vice of academia in the form of exclusive prizes. I would make research hardware and lab space available for cheap. 1st year chem students and dedicated researchers alike would profit, and science would be much better for it.

    Research is expensive. Subsidize it smartly, and make it cheap. Researchers will research everything, instead of cherry picking for grant money. Science will improve.

    I would provide equipment and lab/office space like follows:

    It is important that the science being done is quality. That means the people using the equipment and lab space need to be competent. University degrees in the field of research, or concurrent university enrollment with passing grades in the field are a basic requirement for application. It won't stop degree holding crackpots getting labspace, but it should keep out most rifraff that think they can violate thermodynamics with magnets and tinfoil.

    Academic dishonesty, getting scooped, and predation on academic works are very real and ever-present risks in academia, fundemental research in particular. For that reason, secure and locked offices can be rented for a small fee, comparable to renting a storage unit. They would be fully furnished with a nice desk, several file cabinets, a personal bookshelf, computer equipment, and a laser printer. Disposables like paper and toner are the researcher's responsibility. Internet access would be provided through an aggressive firewall.

    The labs themselves would be tiered.

    Tier 1 labs would be equipped for basic physics and chemical research. Access to calorimeters, glassware, reagents, force meters and the like are available. These are meant mostly to assist students with homework and independent research within their skill level.

    Tier 2 labs would have access to mass spectroscopy equipment, provisions for experimental small scale fusion devices, nanotechnology devices, like AMFs, electron microscopes, etc.

    Tier 3 labs have the really fancy toys in them. A small silicon lithograph is available to producing experimental nanotech structures and devices for fundemental research, large contained fusion devices, etc.

    Tier 1 would be the bread and butter. Tier 2 would catch most advanced students. Tier 3 would take awhile to fully provide, due to the extreme costs of the equipment, and would be reserved for published researchers only.

    It is not meant to replace university equipment; it is meant to suppliment it, and provide a "professor free" environment for independent research for later publication.

    I think doing that on a big scale would do way more for science than cash prizes would.

    • by khallow (566160)
      Sounds a bit like "hacker spaces". It might be a bit pricier, but you probably could work something out along the lines of hacker spaces.
    • With a certain amount of management care, including care taken when making equipment purchases, plus some well done publicity, this is GENIUS.

      But hey, even genius can always be improved, so let's add a few things.

      Stipulate that all research papers generated from work at the facility must be published in open access journals.

      Provide a large compute facility, either a full on massively interconnected super computer or at the very least, a very large well-built cluster. Allocate time on the machine according

    • Parent can't be moderated above 5.

      I should be able to moderate higher and if 2-3 people also agree then it becomes a 6. Not that complex of a feature to add. Use exponential growth; int(score_as_float) when enough people contribute to the total it'll reach 6,7,8 and so on but require more moderators each time. I'm suggesting a non-linear moderation scale. A 6 would mean multiple moderators gambled a point to raise it above 5. It would be extremely rare to achieve an 8 (in which case that post should be t

  • Distortion (Score:5, Insightful)

    by mcelrath (8027) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @04:39PM (#40833875) Homepage

    How exactly does this award help anyone? He's given a prize to a bunch of professors who already have tenure. They do not need incentives to do original work. Meanwhile, grad students and postdocs (who do most of the real work in the field and are the most capable, and motivated) live hand to mouth, have no sense of job stability, and no possibility to pursue truly creative work. Instead they live under the thumb of just those kind of people that received this award. They're forced to pursue old, dead ideas that have not gone anywhere (but are favorites of their advisers/supervisors). Theoretical physics has been stagnating for decades. The Higgs boson is a 40-50 year old idea, and virtually all new ideas in the meantime have been utter bullshit (string theory, supersymmetry, extra dimensions, etc). The field is grasping at straws because the majority of the people working cannot pursue long-term goals, or risky ideas.

    A better award would be to give say $500k to 54 promising postdocs who do not have tenure, to encourage them to go in new directions.

    • You're not thinking like a billionaire "philanthropist." He's not trying to improve physics. Even when these guys set up these foundations, don't kid yourself that it's not still a large measure of ego boosting. Heaven forbid some grand discovery be slapped with one of his awards. You can bet that he'll be doing more interviews and gloating about his generosity than you'll see the actual team who made the discovery.

    • by MiniMike (234881)

      How exactly does this award help anyone? He's given a prize to a bunch of professors who already have tenure. They do not need incentives to do original work.

      But they do need funding to hire post docs and students to help/do the work with/for them, and to buy equipment.

      Meanwhile, grad students and postdocs (who do most of the real work in the field and are the most capable, and motivated) live hand to mouth, have no sense of job stability, and no possibility to pursue truly creative work.

      Oh, hey, maybe they can make some type of connection here... I doubt these professors will be spending their awards on caviar and beach houses. That may just be wishful thinking.

      Instead they live under the thumb of just those kind of people that received this award. They're forced to pursue old, dead ideas that have not gone anywhere (but are favorites of their advisers/supervisors). Theoretical physics has been stagnating for decades. The Higgs boson is a 40-50 year old idea, and virtually all new ideas in the meantime have been utter bullshit (string theory, supersymmetry, extra dimensions, etc). The field is grasping at straws because the majority of the people working cannot pursue long-term goals, or risky ideas.

      Yes, these awards will not solve these problems.

      A better award would be to give say $500k to 54 promising postdocs who do not have tenure, to encourage them to go in new directions.

      That was actually pretty much my first thought too- it would be better spread further.

    • by Immerman (2627577)

      The field is grasping at straws because the majority of the people working cannot pursue long-term goals, or risky ideas.

      And you're complaining that some guy just gave $3M to some of them? There's tenure, and then there's "I suddenly have enough money to blow some of it on the resources I need to pursue my pet theory". I'm willing to be most any researcher who's pushed the boundaries in the past has at least one or two more boundary-pushing theories up their sleeves.

      As for the "stagnation" of theoretical physics - well yeah. For the last several decades the field has been dominated by the fact that we've discovered that th

  • Before anyone tries to motivate innovation with big cash prizes they should watch this TED talk from Daniel Pink: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rrkrvAUbU9Y [youtube.com]
  • by grimJester (890090) on Tuesday July 31, 2012 @05:03PM (#40834295)
    The list of winners contains all the recent heavy hitters in string theory research. This isn't as limited as it seems since they're mostly trying to figure out how plain old QFT works. And succeeding. Nima Arkani-Hamed's recent work in particular simplifies the calculations for scattering amplitudes greatly and are already in use for background calculations in the LHC.

    They'll have quite the weight in the field in the future, especially since the current / original winners are all on the board for deciding future winners. Not that getting someone like (Fields medalist) Ed Witten interested in your work hasn't meant instant recognition before, but now he has the money to fund the research as well.

    All in all, I think this gives the most influential people in the field a channel that makes them actively wield their influence.
  • Bit surprised to see two awards go to researchers in cosmic inflation, a speculative theory with no evidence for it. (I guess string theory is in the same basket though!)

    • by sFurbo (1361249)
      Inflation is way better then string theory in that regard. At least it predicts actual observations in the CMB, so it is falsifiable. Not that it necessarily is great, but comparing it to string theory is just slander.
  • I'm a physicist. As far as I know, the only one who has done real work in physics is Alexei Kitaev, for his amazing contributions for quantum computing. The rest work on either untestable ideas (string theory), or testable ideas who have been shown to be wrong (supersymmetry). I guess that's what you get from a guy who knows nothing about physics but saw something about string theory on the TV and found it cool. Nature has a more or less balanced report; for a more inflamatory one, I recommend Peter Woit's

    • by Badge 17 (613974)

      While I generally agree with you about the esoteric nature of string theory, I should correct the record on supersymmetry and inflation (I know you didn't complain about inflation, but it's there further up the thread).

      Supersymmetry is an idea with some fairly strong motivations that has driven the last several decades of experimental work in particle physics - there is not solid evidence for it yet, but it is not ruled out. Some of the simplest variants have, however, been ruled out. Here's someone more

      • by iris-n (1276146)

        I apologize for (indirectly) criticizing inflation. I guess my anger blinded me to the fact that Alan Guth was among the winners, precisely for his work in inflation.

        But as for SUSY, I disagree with you. To completely rule out a theory is very very hard (a "definitive" test of Bell's inequalities is still not done even today, and some more exotic models of hidden variables will never be ruled out). I think the experimental community agrees that "reasonable" SUSY has already been ruled out. See what Rés [blogspot.com.br]

    • by slashmojo (818930)

      I guess that's what you get from a guy who knows nothing about physics but saw something about string theory on the TV and found it cool.

      "Milner studied theoretical physics at Moscow State University, graduating in 1985. He went on to work at Lebedev Physical Institute, one of the institutes of the Russian Academy of Sciences, in the same department as the future Nobel Prize winner Vitaly Ginzburg. As a doctoral candidate in particle physics, Milner befriended Soviet nuclear physicist and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov. Sakharov's forward thinking would inevitably influence Milner's venture investment strategy."
      http://en.wikipedia.org [wikipedia.org]

      • by iris-n (1276146)

        Then he abandoned his PhD for a MBA. So this guy got a degree in 1985, and has not worked with physics for at least 22 years. Maybe it's too harsh to claim that he knows nothing of physics. He knows almost nothing.

  • 'The intention was to say that science is as important as a shares rating on Wall Street,'

    If not more, but that would've been too much to ask. With that one sentence, that guy who I've not heard about before, has put himself well up there.

  • It is great to hear of an effort similar to the Perimeter institute, of technology billionaires giving back to science.

    As a first year undergraduate Physics student, I had a chance to meet one of the awardees, Dr. Ashoke Sen for lunch with a group of physics students. Not only is he a brilliant scientist, he is the rare combination of a brilliant scientist, and an extraordinarily inspiring and patient teacher. I won't forget the two hours we spent peppering him with utterly stupid physics questions young st

    • by dell623 (2021586)

      To add tothis, I think people criticizing the nature of the award are missing the larger point. A Wall street investor capitalist billionaire type gave away millions of dollars to theoretical physicists studying the fundamental nature of.. well, everything. How can that possibly be a bad thing.

  • As important as? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jandersen (462034) on Wednesday August 01, 2012 @05:28AM (#40839947)

    The intention was to say that science is as important as a shares rating on Wall Street,

    Science is only as important as "shares rating on Wall Street"? Scientists do real work - they make new discoveries that in time benefit us all in uncounted ways. Investors, bankers and stock brokers, on the other hand, produce nothing and discover nothing; they live by siphoning nutrients out of the money stream, so to speak - they are best compared to filter feeders or parasites. Science is many orders of magnitude more valuable than what goes on in Wall Street.

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