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Internet Billionaire Creates Huge Physics Prize

Soulskill posted more than 2 years ago | from the dollars-for-science dept.

The Almighty Buck 192

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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Fusion (1)

Saija (1114681) | more than 2 years ago | (#40833311)

Could this be a boost for the fusion everyone here on /. are waiting for?

Re:Fusion (2, Informative)

Splab (574204) | more than 2 years ago | (#40833453)

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 (4, Insightful)

Baloroth (2370816) | more than 2 years ago | (#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 (3, Informative)

Splab (574204) | more than 2 years ago | (#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 (5, Funny)

gman003 (1693318) | more than 2 years ago | (#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.

Re:Fusion (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40833839)

Guess what sort of flatulence just found itself getting expelled from my anus?

Re:Fusion (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40834135)

Your dad's nut juice?

Re:Fusion (1)

EdIII (1114411) | more than 2 years ago | (#40833953)

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 being taken out by a paper clip.

Re:Fusion (3, Informative)

es330td (964170) | more than 2 years ago | (#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.

Re:Fusion (1)

MickyTheIdiot (1032226) | more than 2 years ago | (#40835121)

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.

Rise of the Clips (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40835119)

I believe most nuclear reactors have paper clips on their grounds. In fact in the event of a meltdown, the paper clips would be able to absorb some of the radiation becoming more powerful than you can possibly imagine. Paperclips are in every major business and government. I think you might be on...

hold on a sec, my box of paperclips just scattered all over the desf*)(~3&thy&733&r&*#(+@{{;\*PU&alve&UI#-

EVERYONE SHOULD USE PAPERCLIPS FOR ALL THINGS. THAT IS ALL.

Re:Fusion (1)

theshowmecanuck (703852) | more than 2 years ago | (#40835669)

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.

Re:Fusion (1)

Baloroth (2370816) | more than 2 years ago | (#40834367)

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 (very useful), but I'm a bit wary about putting all our eggs into the thorium basket.

Re:Fusion (1)

Immerman (2627577) | more than 2 years ago | (#40835695)

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-level "events" with current uranium reactors. And there are interesting things happening in the small-reactor space as well which would neatly sidestep a lot of scaling issues - a 10-year 70MW "nuclear thermal battery" such as Gen4E is proposing could be a wonderful tool in mitigating carbon emissions from the developing world, especially if it could be delivered for a per-MWh price comparable to coal, which is what their current numbers suggest (granted financing is still an issue, nobody buys ten years worth of coal on Day 1) - and that's with a scaled down but fairly traditional uranium-based reactor, their original LFTR design (from when the were still Hyperion) was half the cost and required no monitoring - the reaction rate rapidly and automatically adapted to the thermal draw on the coolant to maintain a steady core temperature.

Sure there are! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40833809)

there are no well-tested designs at all yet,

Of course there are! Rush Limbaugh told me they're all safe. And he's an expert, and so now I'm an expert!

Re:Fusion (1)

The Master Control P (655590) | more than 2 years ago | (#40834541)

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 once it was decommissioned. I don't follow metallurgy closely enough to know if those issues have been solved yet, but we're talking about fluorides of everything with atomic number 40 and up circulating through the same tank. I'm not even sure if it can be solved. On the other hand, since the main loop is no longer a steam bomb with all the attendant bulkiness, replacement may be more practical.

Re:Fusion (2)

elfprince13 (1521333) | more than 2 years ago | (#40834607)

I don't get why we pour so much money into fusion.

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

Re:Fusion (4, Insightful)

Immerman (2627577) | more than 2 years ago | (#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.

Re:Fusion (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40835415)

I'd hope so, but I don't think so. It's a very nice prize and it may very well be an extra incentive for the scientists involved, however, my guess is that the actual experiments to test these theories are so expensive that a few mill won't make much difference.

Published: May 24, 2010 at 4:21 PM
http://www.upi.com/Business_News/Energy-Resources/2010/05/24/Fusion-reactor-costs-ballooning/UPI-64481274732488/
"Overall costs for the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor have risen from an initial $6 billion estimate in 2006 to around $18 billion, German news magazine Der Spiegel reports."

That may very well be due to the cost of beaurocracy. Also, it may be that a private company with a few million might actually accomplish something that an institution, subject to politics of so many governments with billions in cash simply can't. With subjects like fusion... i think chances are slim. The theorists by themselves won't help us develop things like fusion... while the world is waiting for data from ITER and/or CERN.

It's, above all, a statement to the rest of the world: Milner thinks these subjects are important enough to him to pour millions of his privately owned money into them.

TFA about Yuri Milner also states: "Future prizewinners will be chosen by winners from previous years. As the prize committee gradually expands, Milner believes that any imbalances in the panel will self correct. " ... it might as well go down in favoritism. Who knows. It's an interesting experiment by itself, imho.

Re:Fusion (1)

Khashishi (775369) | more than 2 years ago | (#40835515)

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.

Re:Fusion (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40836067)

Could this be a boost for the fusion everyone here on /. are waiting for?

No. This is an award for fundamental physics, not engineering applications.

27 MILLION DOLLARS (4, Informative)

mrbene (1380531) | more than 2 years ago | (#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.

Re:27 MILLION DOLLARS (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40833425)

It's clear if you can manage to read the synopsis all the way to the 2nd sentence, where they distinguish that the Nobel prize amount quoted is an amount before being split up. Perhaps American isn't your native language?

Re:27 MILLION DOLLARS (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40833483)

I thought the clarification was useful here, and it didn't hurt anyone to post it.

Why would you go out of your way to give him shit over it?

Re:27 MILLION DOLLARS (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40833667)

I thought the clarification was useful here, and it didn't hurt anyone to post it.

Why would you go out of your way to give him shit over it?

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Troll_(Internet) [wikipedia.org]

Re:27 MILLION DOLLARS (1)

MyLongNickName (822545) | more than 2 years ago | (#40833493)

No, AC, the synopsis is written poorly.

Re:27 MILLION DOLLARS (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40833723)

'American' is a language now? You probably actually think so, don't you?

Re:27 MILLION DOLLARS (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40833787)

Of course it is. I hear they even speak it in the UK now.

Re:27 MILLION DOLLARS (1)

Curunir_wolf (588405) | more than 2 years ago | (#40834291)

Of course it is. I hear they even speak it in the UK now.

No, most of them still don't. The US and the UK are the only 2 countries separated by a common language.

Re:27 MILLION DOLLARS (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40835707)

That's not entirely true. Portugal and Brazil are also separated by a common language. To a brazillian person, the portuguese spoken in Portugal is often times impenetrable due to entirely different pronounciation, diction, rate of speech (faster in european portuguese) etc; for a portuguese, the dialect spoken in Brazil is often times incomprehensible due to a vastly divergent lexicon employed by brazilians.

Distort the Field? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40833325)

Who writes this crap?

Captcha: deprive

Re:Distort the Field? (5, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40833501)

What the summary doesn't mention is that the prizes will be handed out in pennies. Each prize will weigh 7.5 * 10^5 kg, and have a measurable gravitational pull.

Re:Distort the Field? (1)

PopeRatzo (965947) | more than 2 years ago | (#40834205)

What the summary doesn't mention is that the prizes will be handed out in pennies.

Not bitcoins?

Re:Distort the Field? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40834907)

If it is just a prize, no strings attached, then it will not disturb the field.

Something different is what the Gates Foundation is doing, sponsoring research with plenty of strings attached.

My immediate response was (2)

Spy Handler (822350) | more than 2 years ago | (#40833345)

"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.

Re:My immediate response was (1)

SJHillman (1966756) | more than 2 years ago | (#40833395)

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

Re:My immediate response was (4, Insightful)

fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) | more than 2 years ago | (#40833713)

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...

Re:My immediate response was (1)

HappyEngineer (888000) | more than 2 years ago | (#40835237)

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.

Re:My immediate response was (2)

Immerman (2627577) | more than 2 years ago | (#40835827)

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 optimal level)

  And while a bright young mind might be tempted by dollar-signs to hang up their morals and go into banking, there's not really much chance of getting rich in physics - in fact may of the great names in the field died in poverty. A little extra incentive for the financially motivated probably wouldn't hurt. What would Tesla have done with a $3M windfall?

Re:My immediate response was (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40833757)

... you mean the tards that fucked up the financial system will instead fuck up the research community?

it was a while back but there was the guy that fudged results of his nano-tech research so far that he was given a $1m+ contract at bell labs
when peer review finally caught up with him it found everything he published was absolute bullshit

yea. that's the kind of thing the world needs

Re:My immediate response was (5, Insightful)

The Master Control P (655590) | more than 2 years ago | (#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.

Re:My immediate response was (3, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40835057)

"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".

Re:My immediate response was (5, Informative)

Badge 17 (613974) | more than 2 years ago | (#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.

Distortion smortion (1)

guises (2423402) | more than 2 years ago | (#40833361)

"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 a negative influence (like the Nobel), inciting petty bickering and prize whoring.

Re:Distortion smortion (1)

the_pace (1319317) | more than 2 years ago | (#40833391)

Most likely it will be both (like the Nobel).

Re:Distortion smortion (0)

SJHillman (1966756) | more than 2 years ago | (#40833409)

Nice to know it's worth more than the Nobel Peace Prize. I hear you can get that just for having the potential to do something.

Re:Distortion smortion (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40833441)

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!)

Field Distortion (5, Funny)

Andrewkov (140579) | more than 2 years ago | (#40833377)

some theorists fear it could distort the field

Spoken like a true theoretical physicist.

Re:Field Distortion (5, Interesting)

skids (119237) | more than 2 years ago | (#40833603)

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.

Re:Field Distortion (2)

aliquis (678370) | more than 2 years ago | (#40835239)

US war budget and Apple?

Re:Field Distortion (1)

maroberts (15852) | more than 2 years ago | (#40833885)

some theorists fear it could distort the field

Spoken like a true theoretical physicist.

Someone had better call for Scotty....

Re:Field Distortion (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40835419)

some theorists fear it could distort the field

Spoken like a true theoretical physicist.

Now now boy be good. Not all theoretical physicists have jumped the shark.
Although you can find a very big portion of them in the high energy community.

Again, just a few winners (5, Insightful)

PeterM from Berkeley (15510) | more than 2 years ago | (#40833381)

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

Re:Again, just a few winners (4, Insightful)

Stiletto (12066) | more than 2 years ago | (#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:Again, just a few winners (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40834755)

Because it is more difficult to have 50 modest companies than try 50 companies to be great and only 2 succeed in a spectacular way.

Re:Again, just a few winners (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40833511)

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

And then he can give trophies for everyone who participates!

Re:Again, just a few winners (2, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40833547)

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.

Re:Again, just a few winners (2)

Fjandr (66656) | more than 2 years ago | (#40833871)

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.

Re:Again, just a few winners (2)

pijokela (462279) | more than 2 years ago | (#40833985)

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.

Re:Again, just a few winners (1)

LoyalOpposition (168041) | more than 2 years ago | (#40833593)

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

Re:Again, just a few winners (2)

DM9290 (797337) | more than 2 years ago | (#40833737)

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:Again, just a few winners (2, Insightful)

Stiletto (12066) | more than 2 years ago | (#40833895)

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.

Re:Again, just a few winners (-1, Flamebait)

Curunir_wolf (588405) | more than 2 years ago | (#40834437)

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.

No, YOU are missing the point. But Socialists will never understand economics anyway.

Re:Again, just a few winners (1)

BeanThere (28381) | more than 2 years ago | (#40834721)

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.

Re:Again, just a few winners (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40835355)

So you're saying you now better how to spend some other guy's money? Ha, me too, I think it would be better spent on buying me a Ferrari.

Re:Again, just a few winners (1)

Jah-Wren Ryel (80510) | more than 2 years ago | (#40834899)

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.

Re:Again, just a few winners (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40833655)

I think you might be underestimating the costs associated with sample preparation, time on some quality international physics equipment. Purchasing or renting the computational power to analyze a massive data set is expensive. Archiving the data and documentation of the methods. Backuping up working data sets.

Then there are the costs associated with making all of that available to the community at large.

Then if you work somewhere world class, overhead is 50% and beyond.

Re:Again, just a few winners (1)

mrbene (1380531) | more than 2 years ago | (#40833763)

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.

$3,000,000? THREE MILLION DOLLARS?!!! (4, Funny)

Thud457 (234763) | more than 2 years ago | (#40833845)

Do you know how much RAMEN that will buy?!!!
That's enough to feed me for ten thousand years !
I might just have seconds.

Re:Again, just a few winners (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40834005)

Winning this prize is plain greed, they just just do it and be happy. Donate the money to the poor or some good cause. Greedy and I'm sick of it.

Re:Again, just a few winners (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40834069)

You work for joy (ie: no money)? Awesome. I have _A LOT_ of work for you. Just do it and be happy!

Re:Again, just a few winners (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40834543)

Do you work for free? Probably no, since you're able to afford a computer. So STFU hypocrite.

Re:Again, just a few winners (1)

maroberts (15852) | more than 2 years ago | (#40834061)

Why shouldn't scientists have a substantial prize system? For Mathematicians there's the Abel prize (about $1 million), the Millenium Prize for solving difficult problems and for others the Holberg prize (about $600k). Only winning the Fields Medal in maths seems to be a tightwad award ($15000)

It can be argued that a large award would avoid the need for someone to worry about money and free him to concentrate on his work (whenever he has 5 free minutes away from the yacht and hookers, that is).

Re:Again, just a few winners (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40834185)

Who the fuck does years of research for $30,000??
You're obviously not a scientist.
$3M should be the *minimum*.

What you're suggesting is *exactly* what he thinks is the wrong way.
And I agree. Simply because of how much work good science actually is.

Re:Again, just a few winners (1)

BeanThere (28381) | more than 2 years ago | (#40834697)

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

Re:Again, just a few winners (2)

Chris Pimlott (16212) | more than 2 years ago | (#40835371)

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.

Re:Again, just a few winners (1)

Yvanhoe (564877) | more than 2 years ago | (#40835819)

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.

Re:Again, just a few winners (1)

Immerman (2627577) | more than 2 years ago | (#40835971)

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 hot lab assistants, or even do something really crazy like pursue that pet project you always dreamed of but could never find funding for.

One correction (1)

crazyjj (2598719) | more than 2 years ago | (#40833419)

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

FTFY

Re:One correction (1)

BigBunion (2578693) | more than 2 years ago | (#40834461)

I know I'll get flamed as the slashdot noob that I am, but what does FIFTY mean?

Re:One correction (1)

MozeeToby (1163751) | more than 2 years ago | (#40834673)

It's FTFY: Fixed That For You. Generally used when changing one or two key words of someone's statement to completely change the meaning to something you agree with or is more humorous.

e.g.

With the end of scarcity, everyone will be rich!
With the end of scarcity everyone who already has money will be rich! FTFY

Distorting fields (3, Funny)

K. S. Kyosuke (729550) | more than 2 years ago | (#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 (3, Informative)

Quantum_Infinity (2038086) | more than 2 years ago | (#40833583)

That's not a huge physics prize, it's the biggest physics prize.

Tech Robin Hood (1)

llZENll (545605) | more than 2 years ago | (#40833687)

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.

Re:Tech Robin Hood (1)

Fjandr (66656) | more than 2 years ago | (#40833927)

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.

If I were a billionaire philanthropist: (5, Interesting)

wierd_w (1375923) | more than 2 years ago | (#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.

Re:If I were a billionaire philanthropist: (1)

khallow (566160) | more than 2 years ago | (#40835559)

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.

Distortion (4, Insightful)

mcelrath (8027) | more than 2 years ago | (#40833875)

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.

Re:Distortion (2)

GodfatherofSoul (174979) | more than 2 years ago | (#40834043)

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.

Re:Distortion (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40834119)

Well said.
Science prizes can be of 2 kinds : it is either for scientific accomplishements of the highest order (Nobel Prize, Wolf Prize, Abel Prize, Fields Prize, etc...) or it can be used to incentivate "new" scientific research directions.
This new prize doesn't accomplish anything except giving milions of $ to people that "don't deserve it". And of course you simply cannot buy scientific recognition. So even if you receive 3 milion $ one day it sure as hell doesn't make you a better scientist even though it makes you a wealthy man.
Are we witnessing the dawn of era of the wealthy crackpot theoretical physicist ? Ostracized by the scientific community at large but happy with his milions of $ on the bank ?

Re:Distortion (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40834221)

That's fair, although did you notice he's planning to give $100K each to three up and coming junior researchers each year? (I assume this means grad students/post-docs). Admittedly it's not the same as $3M, but still, I'm sure the average physics researcher at that level would really appreciate the money.

Re:Distortion (1)

PAKnightPA (955602) | more than 2 years ago | (#40834239)

That's fair, although did you notice he's planning to give $100K each to three up and coming junior researchers each year? (I assume this means grad students/post-docs). Admittedly it's not the same as $3M, but still, I'm sure the average physics researcher at that level would really appreciate the money.

Re:Distortion (1)

MiniMike (234881) | more than 2 years ago | (#40834579)

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.

Re:Distortion (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40834979)

How exactly does this award help anyone?.

You're telling me that you don't understand why knowing someone is giving out $3M for excellent work in a person's field of expertise may provide incentive for that person to work harder so they may benefit in future? INCENTIVE.

Re:Distortion (1)

mcelrath (8027) | more than 2 years ago | (#40836007)

"Excellent work" in physics means "having something to do with reality". That is the standard upon which the Nobel is based, and the very definition of Physics. The vast majority of the work these guys have done has nothing to do with reality. At least, it has not yet been demonstrated to have anything to do with our universe. We have not proven the existence of supersymmetry, extra dimensions, or anti-de Sitter space. Absent that, their work is nothing more than a mathematical curiosity. Physicists will always speculate, and that speculation itself is not deserving of reward outside the career paths available to physicists. True achievement lies in predicting what will be measured, and thereby explaining the nature of the universe. None of theses guys have done that. They've gotten the prize for making a lot of noise, and being the loudest voice in the echo chamber that is modern theoretical physics.

If you disagree, then describe to me exactly what a young person is supposed to do, to achieve such a prize.

Money as motivator (1)

Beorytis (1014777) | more than 2 years ago | (#40834111)

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]

It's not about the money, it's about the press (1)

danparker276 (1604251) | more than 2 years ago | (#40834253)

He might not like the way Nobel picks the winners. The awards with the most money behind it gets the most people the show up and the most press. If he agree with the way Nobel does it, he would just add to the prize money This is the cool part of his way: "As for the panel's composition, he admits that "any nine names I would have chosen would not be a perfect set". Future prizewinners will be chosen by winners from previous years. As the prize committee gradually expands, Milner believes that any imbalances in the panel will self correct. Each year, the laureates will also select three junior researchers to receive a $100,000 'New Horizons' prize, and, if warranted, a winner of an ad hoc prize."

A who's who of active string theorists (4, Informative)

grimJester (890090) | more than 2 years ago | (#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.

I don't know about the prize... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40835789)

... but I love the website.

Money for doing a great job? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#40835825)

The guy's obviously not a liberal.
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