Sunday, December 22, 2013

New $3M Prizes For Mathematics Announced!

Interesting news! There is going to be a new $3 million-dollar prize for advances in Mathematics, similar to the high-profile Breakthrough prizes that have been announced in Life Sciences and the Fundamental Physics prize. The funds for these prizes are coming from technology billionaires who are trying to raise the social status of people who work in the area of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Starting next year, the Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics, as it will be called, will join the Fundamental Physics Prize, which Mr. Milner established in 2012, and the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, which he set up a year ago in partnership with Sergey Brin of Google, Mr. Zuckerberg and Jack Ma, a Chinese entrepreneur, and their families. Each winner or winning team gets $3 million, making the awards the richest in science (this year’s Nobel Prize winners, for example, are each winning or sharing $1.2 million). 
All the prizewinners are eligible to win again, but in the meantime they will help judge future contests. For the new math award, Mr. Milner and Mr. Zuckerberg, in consultation with experts, will choose the first winners. Mr. Milner declined to say how many mathematicians would be chosen, but there could be quite a number of windfalls in store: for the physics price, there were nine inaugural winners.
This sounds like a good idea to me but not everyone agrees. Professor Peter Woit of Columbia University is one such critic:
Even if the Milner-Zuckerberg prize does end up focused on the best mathematics research, I still think the whole concept is problematic. The US today is increasingly dominated by a grotesque winner-take-all culture that values wealth and celebrity above all else. While mathematics research, like the rest of academia, has been affected as a star system has become increasingly part of the picture, this field has been somewhat immune to celebrity culture. While people typically think that what mathematicians do is perfectly respectable, they don’t understand much about it and aren’t especially interested. Milner and Zuckerberg want to change this by turning mathematicians into celebrities, but I don’t see any reason to believe this is going to lead to better mathematics.
Woit's main issue with the prize is that he thinks the money could have a better use if directed somewhere else. That may be true, but although I support and defend his right to express his beliefs, it really seems like another example of someone external to a process making an observation about someone's decision to approach a problem in a particular way and critiquing it because what is being done doesn't align with how the critic sees the world or their goals. 

To me, the critic should promote their vision, unless they can make a compelling case for the idea that the activity they are critiquiing will actually have a deleterious impact on some universal good.

I don't think Woit's criticism does that. What do you think, do you think the $3 million Breakthrough Prizes in Mathematics will do more harm than good?

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