Indian scientist scoops US$3 million fundamental physics award

Theoretical physicist Ashoke Sen, a string theorist at India’s Harish-Chandra Research Institute, is one of nine winners of the first Yuri Milner Fundamental Physics Prize. At US$3 million, the award is worth nearly three times more than a Nobel and is the most lucrative academic prize in the world.

The prize was created by Yuri Milner, a Russian physics postgraduate student who dropped out and subsequently became a billionaire by investing in internet companies.

Sen (56) has spent nearly three decades pursuing work in fundamental physics, particularly ‘string theory’, an attempt to unify the theories of gravity and quantum mechanics and to complete a task that Einstein began.

He was the only developing country scientist to clinch a Milner prize. Seven of the other winners are based in the United States and one is in France.

During the mid-1980s and 1990s, physicists churned out several string theory versions, all of which appeared correct and thus drew scepticism from some fellow scientists.

According to the Milner Foundation, which instituted the prize, Sen’s work has helped show that multiple string theories are all different versions of a single, underlying theory.

Sen says what the prize means to him

“This is certainly the biggest award I have got. I hope that this will be an encouragement for young students who are interested in basic research to take it up as a career option,” Sen told University World News.

“I would like youngsters to take up science not for the glamour of an award, but for the joy and knowledge that it brings.”

However, Sen added, the award did not endorse any scientific theory.

His win has shone a spotlight on fundamental research in India, which according to him is “certainly ahead of many other developing countries and also well ahead of many developed countries.

“In our area [string theory] the Indian contribution has been extremely significant. There are many people working in different parts of India who are widely recognised as leaders in the field,” Sen said, giving two reasons for this.

“The subject itself does not require much infrastructure except for a computer, good internet connection and some travel money to visit other places and invite others to visit. The second reason, perhaps not unrelated to the first, is that during the last 30 years many outstanding researchers in this area have returned to India from abroad.”

The tremendous improvements in communication, and better travel funding, had helped Indian theorists, Sen argued.

“For example, now we can publish our result on the arXiv [an archive for electronic pre-prints of scientific papers] the day after a paper is typed, whereas earlier it would take months before we could make copies of our pre-print and send it to others,” Sen said.

Sen has received many awards over the years, among them the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize, India's highest science award, in 1994, and the Infosys Prize in 2009, an award intended to elevate the prestige of scientific research in India.

He feels that most research in India should be carried out in universities rather than the research institutes. “For this it is essential that the teaching and administrative loads at universities be kept at a sufficiently low level so as to allow people to spend a large fraction of their time towards research.

“If we hire excellent people at universities and then load them with so much teaching and administrative responsibilities that they have little time left for research, then it will be completely counterproductive,” Sen said.

“During the last few years science funding [from government] has also increased significantly, and at least in our area I do not see lack of funds as an obstacle against doing first class research.”

The Milner prize

The Moscow-based Milner Foundation said the Fundamental Physics Prize recognises “transformative advances in the field”, and aims to provide “recipients with more freedom and opportunity to pursue even greater future accomplishments”.

Unlike the Nobel in physics, the Fundamental Physics Prize can be awarded to scientists whose ideas have not yet been verified by experiments, which often occurs decades later.

“This award is not limited to only those whose work may not be verified by experiments yet. In particular even winners of the Nobel prize are eligible. So in that sense it has a broader scope,” Sen explained.

“On the other hand this award is only for topics related to fundamental physics while the Nobel prize is also given for other aspects of physics. In this sense the two prizes are different.”

According to the award's website, this year's winners will form the next selection committee.

“This is certainly a great honour but is also a lot of responsibility,” said Sen, who has not thought about becoming rich overnight.

“I have not really thought about how to use the prize money. But over the next few days I hope to make some plans in consultation with my family and friends.”

Sen graduated from Calcutta University, obtained a masters from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur, and a doctorate from the State University of New York, before returning to work at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.

He has been a professor at the Harish Chandra Research Institute since 1995.

The only other inaugural prize-winner based outside the United States is Maxim Kontsevich, a mathematician at the Institute of Advanced Scientific Studies outside Paris, whose abstract mathematical findings have helped physicists research string theory.

The US-based physicists are: Alan H Guth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who works on cosmic inflation; Andrei Linde of Stanford, who works in the same field; Alexei Kitaev of the California Institute of Technology, who researches quantum computers; and NJ Nima Arkani-Hamed, Juan Maldacena, Nathan Seiberg and Edward Witten of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.