Despite producing groundbreaking work in physics starting in 1905, Albert Einstein was initially passed over for a Nobel Prize. It wasn’t until 1921 when he won the prize for his discovery of the photoelectric effect, a phenomenon that could be demonstrated in experiments. His more-celebrated, broader theory of relativity never got the same Nobel recognition.
The new $3 million Fundamental Physics Prize for theoretical scientific breakthroughs fills an obvious gap. The reward, created by Yuri Milner, a failed Russian physics student who made millions investing in Facebook and Internet start-ups, goes to scientists who advance knowledge of the universe in ways that can’t immediately be verified. Among the nine initial winners, each of whom will get $3 million from Milner, is Alan Guth, the MIT professor who developed cosmic inflation, the theory that the universe expanded exponentially when first formed. Other recipients advanced string theory, which attempts to connect particles to other forces in an overarching theory of the universe. Neither cosmic inflation nor string theory has been proven, but both have provided researchers with more hope of solving longstanding mysteries.
Milner’s prize, to be handed out annually, is now the world’s most lucrative scientific prize. As such, it should provide a little extra incentive for physicists to push boundaries. This won’t eclipse the importance of the Nobel, despite its comparatively paltry $1.2 million award, because proven applied science will have more immediate impact on daily life than esoteric theories. But, as Milner is right to argue, groundbreaking new ideas deserve recognition, too, because they force the world to rethink what was assumed to be impossible.