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Photo of Fundamental Physics Prize 2014
L.A. Cicero, Stanford

The value of fundamental research

The winners and finalists of this year’s $3 million Fundamental Physics Prize convened to discuss strategies for elevating the public’s awareness and knowledge of theoretical physics.

The brightest minds in physics came together on Friday for a daylong celebration of physics and to fete this year’s winners of the $3 million Fundamental Physics Prize.

Revolutionary innovations, breakthroughs in how problems are approached and significant developments that change how we interact with the world come when great research is driven by curiosity and a passion for great discovery, said Stanford President John L. Hennessy.

The 2013 Fundamental Physics Prize was awarded to Michael B. Green, University of Cambridge, and John H. Schwarz, California Institute of Technology, for work that has delivered new perspectives on quantum gravity and the unification of forces.

Green and Schwarz joined Yuri Milner, founder of the Fundamental Physics Prize, and the three other finalists to discuss some of the current challenges in fundamental physics research. A primary goal of this prize is to elevate the public’s awareness and knowledge of theoretical physics, a challenge that the participants touched on throughout their conversation.

There is a common perception that fundamental physics matters only to a small set of specialized scientists, and even then only in theoretical, not practical, terms.

To counter that belief, Milner pointed to an oft-cited estimate that 25 percent of the GDP of developed countries can be attributed to applications of quantum theory. The processes that make things such as solar cells, DVDs, MRI scans, semiconductors, transistors and nuclear fission possible are all explained by quantum theory.

Given how important past fundamental research has turned out to be, Milner said, why is it so difficult for current work to capture the public’s interest or to earn more government funding?

The panelists acknowledged that it’s difficult to win funding when there are many scientific areas competing for the same resources, but particularly because with fundamental work, it can often be difficult to see how the work will possibly turn into practical applications.

“The more successful we are at reaching out to the public and getting them to understand what we’re doing, the more excited they’ll be by it,” said Joseph Polchinski, one of this year’s finalists and a professor at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “But I think there is still a lot of support for science for the wonder of it.”

The long-term financial value of such research is one way to emphasize the value of fundamental work, the panelists said, but it can be extremely difficult to project the path theoretical work, and even discoveries, will take.

“[Physicists] are not very good at predicting what the future is going to bring, which is a wonderful thing about the field,” said finalist Andrew Strominger of Harvard University. “What we discover tends to be far more wonderful and beautiful than what we could imagine.”

For example, in 1859, the French mathematician Urbain Le Verrier took careful measurements of Mercury’s orbit and determined that its location in the night sky was a few degrees off from where calculations predicted it should be. The work was interesting in its own right, but its true significance emerged half a century later.

“That tiny glitch in the motion of Mercury is what Einstein turned into the general theory of relativity,” said Strominger.

And while it’s true that theoretical physics can be very difficult to comprehend for the average person—indeed, Albert Einstein needed several decades to sort out the implications of his early works—that perspective will naturally change over time.

“Maybe one hundred years down the road, they will study higher dimensions in elementary school and think that it’s an everyday thing,” said finalist Cumrun Vafa of Harvard University, referencing a complex topic popularly debated in physics circles today.


Pictured above: The 2014 Fundamental Physics Prize celebration featured a panel discussion on current challenges in fundamental physics research with Andrew Strominger, Harvard University; Joseph Polchinski, KITP/University of California-Santa Barbara; Yuri Milner, moderator; Michael B. Green, University of Cambridge; John H. Schwarz, California Institute of Technology; and Cumrun Vafa, Harvard University.

This article was originally published in the
Stanford Report.