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 US$3 million 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.
Announced yesterday, the award is one of several set up in July by Yuri Milner, a Russian Internet mogul who quit his doctorate in physics and made US$1 billion 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 e-mail, Hawking said he was “delighted and honored” 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.”
Milner, 51, holds an advanced degree in theoretical physics from Moscow State University, but abandoned a doctorate 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 recognize the greatest minds in fundamental physics, and help them to make significant contributions in the future.
Hawking, 70, is not the only winner. The scientists who led the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) and discovered what looks like the Higgs boson share another US$3 million 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.