Alexei Kitaev wins Fundamental Physics Prize

Alexei Kitaev was just named as a co-recipient of the inaugural Fundamental Physics Prize, along with 8 other distinguished physicists. This is a brand new prize which was started by a Russian billionaire named Yuri Milner. More at the New York Times. Alexei is credited in the citation as follows:

For the theoretical idea of implementing robust quantum memories and fault-tolerant quantum computation using topological quantum phases with anyons and unpaired Majorana modes.

This is without question a well-deserved award. I know I’m not the only one who has said, only half joking, that I work on “Kitaev Theory”. A hearty congratulations to Alexei.
There’s more to this story, though! Since the NYT highlights it, there is no dancing around the fact that this is the largest monetary prize in the history of physics: US $3 million! And with big money comes big controversy. From the NYT, my emphasis:

Unlike the Nobel in physics, the Fundamental Physics Prize can be awarded to scientists whose ideas have not yet been verified by experiments, which often occurs decades later. Sometimes a radical new idea “really deserves recognition right away because it expands our understanding of at least what is possible,” Mr. Milner said.
Dr. Arkani-Hamed, for example, has worked on theories about the origin of the Higgs boson, the particle recently discovered at the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, and about how that collider could discover new dimensions. None of his theories have been proven yet. He said several were “under strain” because of the new data.

Given that this is worth more than the Nobel prize (“only” $1.2 million, usually shared by 3 people) what sort of incentives does this set up? I’m glad that Mr. Milner’s award will go to researchers with breakthrough ideas, but sometimes great ideas don’t agree with Nature! They will have other value, for sure, but is it too risky to reward “radical ideas” over correct ideas? Mr. Milner, who made his fortune investing in internet companies and knows a thing or two about risk, apparently doesn’t think so.
Update: Given that 5 of the recipients were string theorists, it is unsurprising that Peter Woit got there first to add some fuel to the fire.

7 Replies to “Alexei Kitaev wins Fundamental Physics Prize”

  1. While the recipients no doubt all richly deserve their prizes, I find the trend towards more and more lucrative rewards for superstars somewhat depressing. This $27 million could have paid *one hundred* postdocs $90k each per year for 3 years! (OK, I realise it’s less once overheads are taken into account.) Or even providing greater job security (shock, horror) for a smaller number of researchers. And which of these possibilities is more likely to lead to great science? To those that have shall be given, etc…

    1. Ironically, one of the reasons given for this new prize is to “provid[e] the recipients with more freedom and opportunity to pursue even greater future accomplishments.” But I guess all of them had pretty much all the freedom and opportunity they needed, right? At least, relative to a typical postdoc that is certainly true. As you said, I’m sure they are very well deserving of their prizes (and in the case of Kitaev, I know for sure), I’m just sympathizing with your point.

    2. Kitaev alone is worth more than 50 postdocs for 3 years (I added in the overhead for you). Joking.
      Sort of.

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