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The Biggest Cash Prize in Science

What's the most lucrative prize a scientist can collect? The Nobel Prize has long been the premier award in all scientific fields. It nets each recipient a share of $1.2 million. The next most prestigious awards, such as the Israeli Wolf Foundation in physics and chemistry, pay around $100,000. This past year, styling himself after Alfred Nobel, Russian billionaire Yuri Milner decided to bestow prizes from his personal wealth. This is the Fundamental Physics Prize. Each winner's haul? Three million dollars.

Not only is this the largest monetary prize in physics (and all of science), but in some senses it carries the fewest strings attached. The first round of prizes were personally awarded by Milner. 3000 scientists do not vote by mail, unlike the Nobel selection process. 250 candidates are not discussed in secret; no reports are written and no committees meet. Future winners will be chosen by past winners and a very small board. Simple, quick, decisive, not bureaucratic.

The Fundamental Physics Prize has distinctive upsides. Being beholden to no large establishments, it is not caught up in politics or games. For example, Milner brushed off an idiotic New York Times question about the gender of recipients. (The overwhelming majority of physicists, and theoretical physicists, in particular, are male.) It can be awarded solely on merit and bypass politics.

The prize can change the life of a researcher in the heart of their career. A brilliant theorist waits, sometimes for decades, for experimental validation of their work before they can receive a Nobel. Peter Higgs is a perfect example. He published in 1964, and only now (thanks to the LHC), at age 83, is he eligible for the honor. 
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Milner's prize does have a glaringly unscientific facet however: it does not require experimental validation or realization of the honored work. Verification is essential to making sure that the prize honors scientific contribution. By choosing work that is speculative, the award can promote "creative output" more than strict scientific achievement. Additionally, this may promote ideological bias towards certain ideas regardless of their veracity. If string theory is some day rejected, several of the prize-winners may be seen as great thinkers who chased a red herring.

Taking money made from Farmville (Milner made millions from Zynga) and giving it to physics research is a great idea. Manny Pacquiao can make $23 million in a single night and not even be conscious at the end of it. Now a physicist can make $3 million for years of late nights working through math and physics textbooks and solving equations. It's about time.

(Image: Laser via Shutterstock)

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Tom Hartsfield
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