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Beyond the Big Bang: A Russian billionaire’s investment in science

Do you think cutting-edge scientists should earn as much as star athletes, celebrity artists or Wall Street bankers? Russian billionaire investor Yuri Milner does, and this week he put his money where his heart is.

Mr. Milner deposited $3-million (U.S.) in the bank accounts of each of the nine theoretical physicists he judged to be doing the most brilliant work in their field. They are the first recipients of the Fundamental Physics Prize, a new honour created by him. It is the most lucrative academic award in the world, and will henceforth be given to one winner each year.

Mr. Milner, who studied physics for a decade before making his fortune in prescient Internet investments, said he decided to create such a rich prize because he thinks the compensation of top scientists is out of whack in 21st-century society.

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"I wanted this amount to be meaningful," he said by telephone from Moscow. "I think top scientists need to be compensated at a different scale in society. Somebody with experience will tell you that true scientists are not motivated by money – they are motivated by the quest itself. That is true. But I think an additional recognition will not hurt."

The sums certainly made an impact on their recipients.

"I was really stunned. It didn't seem real," said Alan Guth, a professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "It is hard to believe when someone calls you and says you've won a $3-million prize."

Prof. Guth learned of the award two weeks ago, and the money was wired to his bank account a week later. He believes the organizers understood that physicists might be suspicious of a cold call from an unknown man with a Russian accent asking for their bank account details so he could transfer $3-million. So another winner, Nima Arkani-Hamed, a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., called Prof. Guth and let him know what was coming. Mr. Milner phoned the next day.

Prof. Arkani-Hamed was just as astonished when he first heard about the prize. "Of course, I was flabbergasted, both by the incredible generosity of the prize as well as by being included in a list with so many heroes of the field," he wrote in an e-mail.

The prize springs from Mr. Milner's intense passion for physics and his belief that it is one of the pursuits that defines and ennobles us as human beings.

"Science is one of a handful of things that defines us as a very special species," he said. "It is amazing how far we have been able to get and how accurate our predictions are. I think understanding how the universe was born is very important. It really gives us a perspective on many things."

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That's why his award focuses on theoreticians, including those whose work has not been verified by experiments, and on ideas which might have no practical use – at least not one we can think of yet.

"It is hard to think of practical applications of the black hole," Mr. Milner said. "Because practical applications are so remote, many people assume we should not be interested. But this quest to understand the world is what defines us as human beings."

Future winners will be chosen by previous recipients, but the inaugural group was selected by Mr. Milner . He is modest about his own scientific talents. Physics, he said "was not for me. Looking at where I am today, I think I was not qualified enough. You truly have to be very, very smart and very, very hard-working."

But Prof. Guth is "very impressed" by Mr. Milner's list: "It did surprise me he did as well as he did."

A major goal of the awards is to raise public awareness of physics, partly through the popular lecture each winner will be invited to deliver.

"This is an encouragement for them to do a public talk and explain what physics is about," Mr. Milner said. "The problem is that modern fundamental physics is so far from you and me. … Fundamental physics has advanced so far from the understanding of most people that there is really a big disconnect."

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That is a problem, he believes, and not only because it deprives so many of us of an understanding of one of the most beautiful and consequential human undertakings.

Big future discoveries in physics will require massive, global public investment, and we will be prepared to support that only if we understand what scientists are up to. The winners, Mr. Milner said, are enthusiastic about this part of the project.

These are grand ambitions. But the question Prof. Guth has been asked most often this past week is what he will do with his prize. He sighed when I put that query to him yet again.

"My wife and I talked about it a little but then decided we're too dazed," he said. "When we get over the shock, we'll decide what to do."

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