The Inaugural Breakthrough Prizes in Mathematics

Image: Julie Rybarczyk, via flickr.

Image: Julie Rybarczyk, via flickr.

Last month, the inaugural Breakthrough Prizes in mathematics, founded and partially funded by internet billionaires Yuri Milner and Mark Zuckerberg, were awarded to five people: Simon Donaldson, Maxim Kontsevich, Jacob Lurie, Terence Tao, and Richard Taylor. The prize is $3 million per person, and the first five winners will be on the committee for the selection of future winners. (In the future, there will be only one prize awarded per year.)

I was a bit surprised that there hasn’t been much talk on blogs about the prizes, but there has been a bit. Peter Woit wrote about the prize on Not Even Wrong, and the comments to his post are interesting. “Shecky Riemann” also has a post on Math-Frolic.

I must admit that I am somewhat cynical about the prize. (Now might be a good time to reiterate the disclaimer that appears on the sidebar of this blog: my opinions do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the AMS.) The five winners are all productive, brilliant mathematicians who have enhanced their fields immensely, and they deserve to be recognized. But $3 million is just so much money! It’s hard for me to see how concentrating that much money in the hands of so few people is an efficient way to support mathematics.

Woit’s post voices some similar concerns. He writes,

“…it’s still debatable whether this is a good way to encourage mathematics research. The people chosen are already among the most highly rewarded in the subject, with all of them having very well-paid positions with few responsibilities beyond their research, as well as access to funding of research expenses. The argument for the prize is mainly that these sums of money will help make great mathematicians celebrities, and encourage the young to want to be like them. I can see this argument and why some people find it compelling. Personally though, I think our society in general and academia in particular is already suffering a great deal as it becomes more and more of a winner-take-all, celebrity-obsessed culture, with ever greater disparities in wealth, and this sort of prize just makes that worse. It’s encouraging to see that most of the prize winners have already announced intentions to redirect some of the prize moneys for a wider benefit to others and the rest of the field.”

In fact, the New York Times reports that Tao, one of the winners, has similar feelings:

“Dr. Tao tried to talk Mr. Milner out of it, and suggested that more prizes of smaller amounts might be more effective in supporting mathematics. ‘The size of the award, I think it’s ridiculous,’ he said. ‘I didn’t feel I was the most qualified for this prize.’

“But Dr. Tao added: ‘It’s his money. He can do whatever he wants with it.’

“Dr. Tao said he might use some of the prize money to help set up open-access mathematics journals, which would be available free to anyone, or for large-scale collaborative online efforts to solve important problems.

As a young academic who has seen postdoc positions seem to dry up since the beginning of the financial crisis, I can’t help but do a little arithmetic. $50,000 is a nice round salary for a postdoc. Before benefits are factored in, that makes each $3 million prize the equivalent of 60 postdoc years. Even if we add another $50,000 a year for health insurance, travel, and other research expenses, that money could fund 30 postdocs a year, or create 10 three-year postdoc positions each year.

But 30 postdocs a year wouldn’t make a good press release. The New York Times wouldn’t write an article about their multimillion dollar minds. And the funders of the Breakthrough Prize want to encourage mathematical celebrity, which supposedly will lead to public awareness, not to fund worthwhile math research in the most efficient way possible. In a Scientific American article about the prize, Ben Fogelson writes,

“Milner’s goal, however, is to increase the popularity of science by celebrating the scientists. ‘Dividing [money] in small pieces and distributing it widely has been tried before and it works,’ Milner says. ‘I think the idea behind this initiative is to really focus on raising public awareness.’”

A commenter on Woit’s post suggested that each year, the prize money could be used to endow a research position at a university, noting that at MIT, you can endow a professorship for $3 million. Would that be high-profile enough? I think you could still write a press release about it!

I had some interesting discussions about the prize on Twitter after the prizewinners were announced, mainly focused on the utility of mathematical celebrity. Those discussions helped me frame a few questions about celebrity and public awareness. I’ve tried to figure out some analogous questions about movies and the Oscars because the Breakthrough Prizes have been described as the Oscars of science.

  • Will people think mathematics is more valuable because a few people can earn giant prizes from it? (Do people think filmmaking is more valuable because the Oscars exist?)
  • Will people want to become mathematicians because they think they could earn a big prize from it? (Do people become actors or filmmakers because they think they could win an Oscar?)
  • If the ultimate goal of the prize is to raise public awareness of math, what is a more effective way to do that: tell them about a successful mathematician, or tell them about an idea in math? (If someone doesn’t know much about cinema, would it be more effective to tell them about an Oscar-winning actor or show them a movie?)
  • Are these even the right questions and analogies?

This post might sound like I’m saying, “I don’t like this new prize because I’m never going to get it, but I would like it if it funded people more like me.” But I don’t think I’m quite there either. I have reservations about the suggested alternate uses of the prize money as well, thanks largely to two posts by Cathy O’Neil about billionaire money in mathematics and in academia in general.

On a lighter note, if you are a mathematician who is a bit embarrassed about a recent windfall, Persiflage suggests that “a bottle of Chateau d’Yquem 1967 does wonders to wash away any last remaining vestiges of embarrassment…”

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7 Responses to The Inaugural Breakthrough Prizes in Mathematics

  1. Rensso says:

    Evelyn, the idea about open journal will be a new great scientific revolution. The journal is a good business, but not necessary for the scientists. Open access is vey good for the developement of the science in every where.

    • evelynjlamb says:

      I am definitely in favor of open access to research, but I wonder how much journals will need to be a part of that going forward. In other words, will arxiv supplant the journals (or has it already)? I read newer papers on arxiv and don’t even look at the published version. Journals serve as a way of giving people prestige and rating them, which helps with hiring and promotion, but it seems like in math at least, dissemination is happening without the journals. Maybe new open-access journals would be a good way to confer the prestige and ratings, but maybe it could be done another way.
      Access to older material is a problem, though, and I like Charles’s idea of helping to provide researchers with that kind of access. I hadn’t really thought of that because I’ve always been affiliated with US research schools. I sometimes have to get things through ILL and it takes a day or so, but I’ve always been able to access them one way or another without having to pay out of my own pocket.

  2. Charles Wells says:

    Individual prizes ought to be limited to a million dollars. That would still result in a bunch of millions for smaller awards, including $50,000 for postdocs (great idea).

    There is another way to help. I know good young people doing respectable math research who have no access to most papers behind paywalls. Some of them are jobless, some are adjuncts, and some are at small colleges who can’t afford to subscribe to sources such as JStor. They would greatly benefit from being awarded library access at some nearby major university, including ILL and access to online databases. I would guess (based on exactly one example!) that a university would grant such access for something like $2000 a year.

    I have sent various such people papers that are behind paywalls illegally and I am not the least bit ashamed. I also know some reputable research mathematicians who keep papers that are behind paywalls on their website without putting them in the list of contents. If someone asks for such a paper, they send them a private email with the URL.

    No doubt there are other ways to help lots of researchers with a little money (for trips to meetings, for example).

    Charles Wells

  3. Ernesto Icogo says:

    No one should cry about how “big” this US$3-million as prize for brilliant mathematics. Just imagine how “small” it was compared to a multi-million boxing fight that will last only for at 45 minutes.

    Mathematical discoveries are forever and who knows what they will contribute to humanity. Can boxing contribute the same?

    … So you better not cry, you better not pout because Santa Claus is coming to town.

  4. Mark Joshi says:

    Funding more postdocs is dangerous. It simply delays the day when their holders can’t get a permanent job and switch fields. The best thing for young mathematicians might well be to switch out of academia as early as possible. The prizes are detrimental in either form if they encourage more people to chase the same number of jobs.

    Raising the profile of mathematics and making its practitioners have more prestige is not a bad thing. Not so long ago, someone accused me of irresponsibility for encouraging an 18-year old to do a maths degree.

  5. Constantine Adraktas says:

    The attitude of Grigory Perelman on prizes for Mathematics

    Abstract from Wikipedia

    In August 2006, Perelman was awarded the Fields Medal for “his contributions to geometry and his revolutionary insights into the analytical and geometric structure of the Ricci flow.

    ” Perelman declined to accept the award or to appear at the congress, stating: “I’m not interested in money or fame; I don’t want to be on display like an animal in a zoo.”.

    On 22 December 2006, the scientific journal Science recognized Perelman’s proof of the Poincaré conjecture as the scientific “Breakthrough of the Year”, the first such recognition in the area of mathematics.

    On 18 March 2010, it was announced that he had met the criteria to receive the first Clay Millennium Prize. for resolution of the Poincaré conjecture.

    On 1 July 2010, he turned down the prize of one million dollars.

    He additionally turned down the prestigious prize of the European Mathematical Society.

  6. John says:

    There is a guy who is really good at hitting plastic balls with a metal stick. There is another guy who is really good at getting a plastic ball through a hoop.

    The first guy’s name is Tiger Woods his net worth is $600 million. The second guy’s name is Michael Jordan his net worth is $900 million.

    If you get some perspective you see that these guys add nothing to society (at best they entertain the masses). Terence Tao and these other guys are f****** geniuses they are as close to real life magicians as it gets. If there is anyone that deserves to get rewarded for their hard work it is them.

    At the same time, I understand your frustration for the lack of funding for postdocs and other mathematicians.

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