What big money for physicists means

By Razib Khan | August 3, 2012 1:53 am

9 Scientists Receive a New Physics Prize:

Several of the winners said they hoped that the new prize, with its large cash award, would help raise recognition of physics and draw more students into the field. “It’ll be great to have this sort of showcase for what’s going on in the subject every year,” Dr. Arkani-Hamed said.

Dr. Guth agreed. “I do think prizes like this help put across to the public that fundamental physics is important, and it’s not just heavyweight boxing that’s worthy of prizes,” he said.

But he was going to warn his students not to get the wrong idea. “Certainly, it’s still not a great idea to go into physics for the money,” he said.

I doubt anyone will go into physics to get this prize. Rather, the importance here is what this teaches society in terms of what is valuable and worthy of praise in our culture. It is a question of values, not incentives and utils. The difference between Athens in the 5th century BC and Constantinople in the 6th century AD is not a matter of material conditions. The empire which Constantinople could mobilize dwarfed the Delian League headed by Athens. But the Athenians had different values than the early Byzantines. Aside from Justinian and Theodora, arguably the most famous individual from this period in Constantinople is the general, Belisarius. In contrast, Alcibiades ranks somewhat lower in the high society of Athens.

  • Al Kovacs

    Monetary recognition for STEM people is a long time coming. Nobody cares about the people who do the hard mental labor. Instead of celebrating the efforts of original computer researchers and inventors the public hears more about the business building ambitions of Bill Gates or Steve Jobs, neither of which did the STEM thinking necessary to create the products they sold. But America’s culture never valued the scientific types, more praise was given to the traveling salesman. So its a good step in the right direction this prize takes. If only the concept gains more acceptance in other business applications across America I would predict an increase in GNP growth.

  • kyrilluk

    The prize has gone to scientists that have been in the forefront of very speculative areas such as inflation or string theory. I guess that next year prize winner will be one of their friend (they gained the privilege to choose the next prize winner), probably working on Multivers (the latest fad) .
    I think that this prize send the wrong message: you gain more if you work on something highly speculative and unsupported by experiments (or even contradicted by the experiments as the article seems to suggest regarding Dr. Arkani-Hamed prize) than in doing your best to actually discover something (this prize give out more money than the Nobel Prize).
    Actually, this prize remind me of the Templeton’s one. I guess this must be nice to receive such a huge amount of money but to me the real achievement – irrespective of money incentive – remains the Physics Nobel Prize. People with a Nobel Prize have actually -for the great majority of them- discovered something.

  • Chris_T_T

    The main problem with this prize is the incentives it creates within theoretical physics. Human nature being what it is, future winners are going to be selected based on whether or not they support the current recipients own research. Rather than encouraging new ideas, it encourages work in a few narrow areas.

    Much better would have been smaller grants to new post docs.

  • simplicio

    We value the memory of Athenian philosophers and artists more then that of their military men because of our present values. I’m not sure it follows that the Athenians themselves held the same relative values (or that they were less focused on war then the Byzantines). Alcabiades is far better attested to in the ancient sources then Socrates. To the Athenians, the heroes were Pheidippides and Themistocles, Socrates and Sophocles were merely amusing. Even in the relatively liberal Athens, military skill and competence was of pre-eminent importance.

    The Greek playwrite Aeschylus famously wanted his gravestone to say only: “he fought at Marathon” with no mention of the plays for which he’d won many prizes.

    The real difference in values between Athens and Constantinople that lead to the philosophers of the former being held in higher regard is that the latter funneled most of its efforts in abstract matters into issues of theology that modern western thought has largely decided are uninteresting. I’d imagine a hundred Byzantine Socrates spent their efforts contemplating the exact substance of Christ or the Mysteries of the Trinity, and thus are irrelevant to most modern day intellectuals.

  • https://plus.google.com/109962494182694679780/posts Razib Khan

    Even in the relatively liberal Athens, military skill and competence was of pre-eminent importance.

    you have to measure societies on a *relative* scale. there is a clear qualitative difference between the civilian and cultured elite of ancient antiquity, and the shift toward purely military values which marked the shift toward the ‘dark’ ages. similarly, despite the early song’s origins as a military family, they encouraged the resurrection of the civilian governing class of china. similarly, the rise of effective long range weaponry saw the reemergence of the cultured aristocracy of europe.

    I’d imagine a hundred Byzantine Socrates spent their efforts contemplating the exact substance of Christ or the Mysteries of the Trinity, and thus are irrelevant to most modern day intellectuals.

    most of the philosophical work was done early on, in the 4th and 5th centuries. the later stuff is relatively marginal, though how much movement can you really have in this area? in any case, many ancient arts, such as rhetoric, fell into disuse around this period. law was an exception, because of its utility.

  • http://www.twitter.com/theogonia31 M87

    Lubos Motl discusses it in a post on The Reference Frame and it’s worth skimming through. I want to highlight the relevant bit that might be worth discussing.

    However, I have no doubts that physics needs to gain more authority in the society and creating multimillionaire physicists is a way to do so because most ordinary people understand the concept of the money even if they fail to understand the value of physics. This change of the atmosphere may be immensely good for the society – helping the mankind much more intensely and much more permanently than billions spent by other billionaires for random charities. It’s plausible that some of the young people who are starting to work on string theory today will do so mostly because of their dreams to win the Milner prize in the future. While it’s not the most innocent and purified motivation, I still think that it’s a good thing if that’s how many more smart people will be thinking.

    The argument in bold can be extended to Science in general but sticking to the specifics, the impact of the sudden financial doping of Physics should have the kind of effects that Lubos is hoping for, and definitely much more in the developing world (India, Vietnam etc).

    The greatest impact will be in conservative societies that are deeply influenced by financial incentives because your apparent financial worth is your best measure of your social capital within these social structures. In urban india for example, your parents make your career and educational choices because in such societies most of your life is spent in an evolutionary arms race of signaling along with other parents. In conservative societies, social approval is above everything else and there is no better proxy for achieving this that becoming rich. Physics and Theoretical physics will rise in the developing world where these choices are curated by society much more, and they will certainly suddenly believe that Physics is the ultimate respectable field to go into and not ‘MBA’ to sell diapers.

    I am very happy. The Indian string theorist Ashoke Sen was one of the winners of the proze. Suddenly, every media outlet ambushed this reclusive man and tried to make him a national hero overnight. Some really sensationalist headlines in the newspapers like “INDIAN PHYSICISTS FINDS 16.7 CRORE IN BANK ACCOUNT”. Now parents will suddenly want their children to be Physicists (but not chemists or biologists, just like you can be a Cricketer but not a footballer). Now more people from elite instituions like IIT will choose to remain in science because they will have social approval because of it.

    For me, the act of rewarding that money actually had infinitely more value than what it was rewarding to begin with.

  • http://dispatchesfromturtleisland.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    “Certainly, it’s still not a great idea to go into physics for the money[.]”


    Money is a perfectly good reason to go into physics.

    Every single serious candidate for the prize is also a tenured professor or professor on tenure track at a college or university or government agency or non-profit research institute supported by colleges, universities and governements that affords professors a decent amount of time to conduct research that doesn’t provide direct economic benefit to the university or the professor. For every prize winner there are hundreds, maybe thousands of other people who secured academic or government posts who didn’t win. Unlike the lottery, the consolation prize is almost as good as the prize itself and a very large share of people with even a slight chance of winning the prize have a very good chance of winning the consolation prize.

    A young person just entering college is also in a good position to assess their ability to make a living doing physics relatively to the alternatives, while someone playing the lottery, for example, has chance of winning that you can’t handicap when you buy the ticket, with insider information.

    Furthermore, pay for people in careers that use the same aptitude set of physics, but don’t require a college degree, have been basically stagnant since the 1970s and seen great increases in employment instability, while careers using the aptitude set that are available to someone with a degree in physics have been winners in the post-industrial economy seeing improved compensation and a full employment economy by the standards of economists (i.e. 1-2% unemployment rates) for something like 90% of the last forty years.

    Also, keep in mind that the prize goes basically to theoretical physicists. The great thing about being a theoretical physicist, which makes you attractive to institutions even if your grant writing and people skills aren’t all that good, is that compared to an experimentalist, you are dirt cheap. The institution needs to give you an itty bitty office in a building the institution has already paid for, a laptop, a minimal sum of money to attend a few conferences a year and buy a few journal subscriptions, a tiny bit of use time on the mainframe that the institution already bought, and a salary and pension and benefits that while sufficient for a comfortable life aren’t dreadfully expensive. You can share an administrative support person with a dozen other profs. They don’t have to provide you with an expensive laboratory, they don’t have to provide assistants that can’t themselves earn their keep as teaching assistants. Your share of the tuition and institutional funding the institution from the students whom you teach receives does a good job of paying for your keep.

    If you are lucky enough to receive a prize, the marketing benefits to the institution probably rival the direct benefits to you.

    As a professor in a field where the intro class weeds out of the institution a lot of prospective students who can’t even handle algebra and would otherwise need expensive institutional tutorial and office hours support for four years, leaving only the trouble free students who are likely to be alumni contributors when they graduate, for the institution to educate in smaller higher level classes. By weeding out marginal students, physics profs save the entire institution money by reducing long term instructional costs, and they spare other professors the unpleasant task of handing out academic probation triggering low grades. Physicists are much better at telling students that they have failed than poetry professors.

    On the other hand, when your students do graduate, they will typically be among the highest paid and least likely to be unemployed of any of the majors on campus, and you can feel the satisfaction of knowning that few of the physics majors you instructed could have done their jobs after graduation that pay relatively more than their peers without your instruction since your instruction more definitively added value than that of your academic peers in the English or History or Political Science departments. Lots of the value of a college degree is simply a matter of sorting, but nobody seriously doubts that the educational process itself is adding value to people who gradate with physics majors over and above the sorting value inherent in the credential itself. All of this makes it attractive for institutions to hire theoretical physicists relative to other kinds of scientists. If you are going to be in college for four years anyway to get the benefit of sorting effect rewards associated with having a college degree, you may as well do something that you can be sure actually adds value resulting from the education you are actually receiving while you are there. Certainly, a physics major leaves you no worse off than you would have been if you had majored in English or marketing (a perennial at the bottom of entry level pay and employment rates for college graduates).

    People who say that majoring in business is what you should do if you are in it for the money fail to disclose the risks involved. More than half of new business entrapreneurs see their business fail and often lose everything and end up in debt or bankrupt. The number of people who start to climb the corporate ladder is much smaller than the number of reach the top – corporate ladders lean up against pyramids, not skyscrapers. There is a lot more room at the top in physics and the institutions that employ physicists are far less inclined to have layoffs.

    Going into physics is not nearly so much of a succeed in getting a physics career or bust proposition as a lot of the alternatives.

    From the student’s perspective, if you go into physics you can still be a year or two into your major and usually change majors to become an engineer with only a semester or two (or perhaps a couple of summers) of additional higher education – and almost everybody goes into engineering for the money.

    Furthermore, many people who are academically trained as physicists don’t ultimately get to become career scientists, very few of them end up in the ranks of the long term unemployed because their quantitative and IT skills have sufficient transferrability to make them eligible for at least decent middle class jobs even if they aren’t the would by physicist’s day jobs. Lots of people who don’t ever end up getting professorships still manage to spend a few years after college actually working as physicists as post-docs before eventually giving up on a physics career.

    And, I know of several academically trained physicists who ended up doing quantitative work for derivatives trades and high volume stock and commodity traders on Wall Street that uses a substantial subset of their academic and post-doctorate skill set. What could be more about money than Wall Street?

  • http://dispatchesfromturtleisland.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    “physics needs to gain more authority in the society and creating multimillionaire physicists is a way to do so because most ordinary people understand the concept of the money even if they fail to understand the value of physics.”

    One of the reason that pay in disciplines like theoretical physics and academia generally is structured the way that it is, with lots of people at the top making comfortable livings and few people making really big money in the winner take all fashion we find in sports or the entertainment industry or big business or book writing, is that it is very hard to discern who the people who really deserve to be the winners who take all are in these fields, even if you are an expert in the field, until the results are tested if they are even capable of being tested. As Mr. Woit pointed out at his “Not Even Wrong” blog:

    “I noticed what is odd about this prize, after realizing that the winners are kind of a list of the most prominent people in the field who haven’t won a Nobel Prize. What this does is turn the Nobel Prize on its head; you get it for doing work that is untestable or wrong, but that has a high profile.”

    Prizes like this are dished out based to a meaningful extent more on the sociology of the theoretical physics community than on proven results than have potential salienance to people outside that community. This isn’t to say that you shouldn’t award prizes for something that most people don’t understand. One Nobel Prize winner quipped that his work deserved the Nobel Prize precisely because his work was something that not just any reporter could understand.

    But, it is necessarily true, simply because the vast majority of the work in theoretical physics is intrinsically inconsistent with the vast majority of the rest of the work being done in theoretical physics (since a large number of mutally inconsistent theories are proposed), that the vast majority of theoretical physics work is wrong or as Woit is fond of saying, “Not Even Wrong.” Nobel prizes generally get awarded only once we know that the person who got the prize was right.

    Prizes for theoretical physics accomplishments that haven’t yet been established by experiment are a bit like passing out Olympic swimming medals based on a committee’s assessment of everyone who made the qualifying round, without actually running the races. Awarding prizes like that certainly isn’t random and doesn’t give big chunks of money to totally undeserving people, but they are premature in situations like that of theoretical physics where it is entirely possible that the person awarded the prize will turn out to have spent his entire career advancing a theory that turned out to be a dead end.

    In the case of the Field Medal for mathematics, we at least acknowledge that and are trying to assign intrinsic value to an intellectual accomplishment that we are perfectly aware may have no value apart from the instrinsic satisfaction the community receives from knowing that they have done it – it isn’t entirely unlike the idea of giving someone a prize for composing a great Haiku in a country that doesn’t have an economic market for poems. But, unlike abstract mathematics, physics is supposed to be more than a purely intellectual exercise. It is supposed to have some connection to the real world.

  • http://www.twitter.com/theogonia31 M87


    I agree with you that in general, careless people might conflate the Milner Prize and Nobel Prize as rewarding the same kind of achievement. There is also the danger of the lay audience fundamentally misunderstanding the known and the unknown in science based on this award. There is of course also the problem that this award maybe more susceptible to ‘sociological’ aspects of the Physics community at any given time than the Nobel Prize or Fields Medal.

    However, I don’t think that these concerns outweigh the benefits. First, I think the haiku analogy is closer than than the sports analogy except fundamental physics/theoretical physics matters in ways that haiku doesn’t or ever will. The fact that haiku and fundamental physics even have a analogical economic market is a truly terrorizing problem for those of us that understand the value of science. In simple words, these theories will be known to be true or false in the future and the truth and falsity of these theories will matter. A haiku will be a haiku and the potential for any kind of lasting impact of the best haiku compared to the worst haiku is the same, close to zero.

    Razib had a post up about someone comparing String Theory to Theology and you can read Lubos’ response to that.

    I think the basic point is that there are some facts about the world we think we know and theoretical physics has to try to account for those facts without compromising *any* aspect of reality that we already know to be true. This is no joke, in fact this is so incredibly difficult that most of us won’t even understand the problem correctly, forget finding a solution. So, there are some individuals out there that have been courageous enough, creative enough and intellectually rigorous enough to assume certain initial conditions or brute fact about the universe and tried to work out what the behavior of a system with those assumptions would look like. Turns out that trying to understand the nature of reality within that framework needs a lot of deep mathematical and physical knowledge and manipulation to learn something intelligible. Now all of this could turn out to be untrue if we learn a fact about the universe or an initial condition is shown to incorrect but that shouldn’t take away from the intellectual achievement of trying to figure out the details of how things would have worked if in fact, it was true.

    It’s not that hard to see that there is nothing between the fields medal and the nobel prize, yet plenty of brilliant minds are working in between those lines in Physics, Mathematical Physics, Cosmology and so on. Should we just ignore them? I think every joule of cognitive energy spent within this space is extremely useful. Maybe if we have more of our finite collective attentions drawn to this field then maybe we would have a lot more rigorous field and consequently better chances of testing out theories. Therefore, every dollar spent here is great.

    In general, I believe that rewarding the *process* that gives results is always better than rewarding results. I thought this was the strength of the scientific method and mathematical reasoning that you are not simply rewarded because you got the correct answer. It’s clear that what we ought to value is scientifically and rationally sound approaches to problems, even if the approach turns out to be not useful due to newer evidence. This is what I think Milner has essentially tried to do, tried to encourage theoretical physics by bringing attention to it. If you can justify the fields medal, then you can justify a prize for Theoretical Physics.

  • T.Rhett P.

    “most ordinary people understand the concept of the money even if they fail to understand the value of physics”

    If we could help people understand the value of physics then they would grasp that there are life altering applications within this subject. They would get to a point where money is no longer their primary focus but rather to get others to understand and appreciate this valuable subject, and how it can be used to better the world. With this mind set people will hopefully see the good in them and investments will come. I feel like the more people we have working towards the same universal goal to understand the universe the better chance we have of influencing the world on a bigger scale.

    Could there have been any type of system, resource or facility that could have made a positive contribution to the completion of your research in a shorter time frame?


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com


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