British theoretical physicist says he will spend world’s most lucrative science prize, set up by a Russian billionaire, on a holiday home and his autistic grandson

His mind has grappled with space and time, and explored the strange beauty of black holes aglow, but in recent days a more earthly problem has occupied the world’s most famous scientist.

Stephen Hawking, the former Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge University, must ponder how to spend $3m that has landed in his bank account after winning the most lucrative science prize ever established.

The renowned physicist has won the Special Fundamental Physics Prize for a lifetime of achievements, including the discovery that black holes emit radiation, and his deep contributions to quantum gravity and aspects of the early universe.

The award is one of several set up in July by Yuri Milner, a Russian internet mogul, who quit his PhD in physics and made a billion dollars from investments in social media and other companies, such as Twitter, Facebook and Groupon.

The prize winners were selected by an independent committee of physicists, such as Ed Witten, the string theorist, and Alan Guth, who proposed the theory of cosmic inflation. The awards can go to much younger researchers than typically receive the Nobel prize, as experimental proof of theoretical work is not required.

In an email to the Guardian, Professor Hawking said he was “delighted and honoured” to receive the prize. “No one undertakes research in physics with the intention of winning a prize. It is the joy of discovering something no one knew before. Nevertheless prizes like these play an important role in giving public recognition for achievement in physics. They increase the stature of physics and interest in it,” he wrote.

“Although almost every theoretical physicist agrees with my prediction that a black hole should glow like a hot body, it would be very difficult to verify experimentally because the temperature of a macroscopic black hole is so low,” he added.

The physicist, who rose to fame with his 1988 book, A Brief History of Time, has not settled on how to spend the windfall. “I will help my daughter with her autistic son, and maybe buy a holiday home, not that I take many holidays because I enjoy my work,” he wrote.

Nima Arkani-Hamed, a member of the selection committee, said: “In the case of Hawking, what can you say? This is an absolutely true giant of modern physics. He’s done massive, massive things.” Mr. Milner, 51, holds an advanced degree in theoretical physics from Moscow State University, but abandoned a PhD at the Russian Academy of Sciences for an MBA at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. He remains a physics enthusiast though, and established the awards to recognise the greatest minds in fundamental physics, and help them to make significant contributions in the future.

Prof. Hawking, 70, is not the only winner. The scientists who led the Large Hadron Collider and discovered what looks like the Higgs boson share another $3m prize. The winnings go to Lyn Evans, the head of the LHC, and the six past and present heads of the two detector groups, Atlas and CMS, which found the particle.

“I got a phone call saying I’d won a prize of a million bucks,” Mr. Evans told the Guardian. “I was gobsmacked. The first thing you do is sit down. This is great for us, and it addresses some of the deficiencies of the Nobel prize, which cannot go to more than three people.” The Atlas and CMS teams each receive $1m.

Beyond splashing out on an iPad, what to do with the winnings has Mr. Evans stumped.

On July 4, 2012, Fabiola Gianotti and Joe Incandela, the respective heads of the Atlas and CMS groups, described the Higgs boson in back-to-back presentations at Cern, the particle physics lab near Geneva. Ms. Gianotti said: “This is not a prize for me, it’s a prize for the collaboration, and it recognises the hard experimental work everyone involved has done over the years.” She plans to set up a fund with her $500,000 share of the prize to support cash-strapped young physicists in the Atlas group. Mr. Incandela said the prize recognised the “huge effort” of the LHC scientists. “I want to find a way to put this to good use for the benefit of all who made this possible,” he added.

Along with the special prizes for Prof. Hawking and the Cern researchers, the committee named a handful of other physicists who are shortlisted for the $3m Fundamental Physics Prize, to be announced at Cern in March next year.

The conditions attached to the prizes require the winners to give at least one annual public lecture on their field. Most of the talks will be recorded and posted on the website of the foundation that supports the awards.

— Guardian News Service


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