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Alan Guth wins $3 million Fundamental Physics Prize

MIT physicist among nine inaugural winners of prize awarded by Russia’s Milner Foundation.
Alan Guth ’68, SM ’69, PhD ’72, the Victor F. Weisskopf Professor of Physics at MIT
Alan Guth ’68, SM ’69, PhD ’72, the Victor F. Weisskopf Professor of Physics at MIT

Alan Guth ’68, SM ’69, PhD ’72, the Victor F. Weisskopf Professor of Physics at MIT, is among nine physicists worldwide selected as inaugural winners of the Fundamental Physics Prize, the Milner Foundation announced today.

This year’s recipients — each of whom will receive $3 million in recognition of past research achievements in physics — will form a selection committee for future winners of the Fundamental Physics Prize. After this year, it is expected that the prize will be awarded to one physicist annually for what the Milner Foundation described in a statement as “transformative advances in the field.”

The Milner Foundation, based in Russia, cited Guth “for the invention of inflationary cosmology, and for his contributions to the theory for the generation of cosmological density fluctuations arising from quantum fluctuations in the early universe, and for his ongoing work on the problem of defining probabilities in eternally inflating spacetimes.”

“I’m stunned by the amount of the award, and flattered by the honor of being associated with the other award winners,” Guth says. “I am very grateful for the support that I have received from MIT, which has no doubt contributed significantly to this award.”

Other recipients of this year’s Fundamental Physics Prize are Nima Arkani-Hamed, Juan Maldacena, Nathan Seiberg and Edward Witten, all of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J.; Alexei Kitaev of the California Institute of Technology; Maxim Kontsevich of the University of Miami; Andrei Linde of Stanford University; and Ashoke Sen of the Harish-Chandra Research Institute in India.

Guth, 65, has been a member of the MIT faculty since 1980. Much of his research has examined the application of theoretical particle physics to the early universe: What can particle physics tell us about the history of the universe? What can cosmology tell us about the fundamental laws of nature?

In 1980, Guth proposed that many features of our universe, including its uniformity, can be explained by a cosmological model he called “inflation” — a modification of the conventional big bang theory in which Guth posited that the expansion of the universe was propelled by a repulsive gravitational force generated by an exotic form of matter. After more than 30 years of development and scrutiny, including key refinements by Linde, Andreas Albrecht and Paul Steinhardt, the inflationary universe model is now widely accepted by physicists.

One consequence of inflation is that small quantum fluctuations in the early universe can be stretched to astronomical proportions, providing the seeds for the large-scale structure of the universe; Guth and others calculated the predicted spectrum of these fluctuations in 1982. These fluctuations can be seen today as ripples in the cosmic background radiation, first detected by the COBE satellite in 1992, and their properties are in excellent agreement with the predictions of the simplest models of inflation.

Another intriguing feature of inflation is that almost all versions of it are eternal: Once inflation starts, it never stops completely. Inflation has ended in our part of the universe, but it is likely that inflation is continuing very far away, and will continue forever. However, while inflation is eternal into the future, Guth has worked with Alex Vilenkin and Arvind Borde to show that inflation is not eternal into the past. To the contrary, they found that something must have preceded the era of inflation, and that some new physics — perhaps a quantum theory of creation — would be needed to understand it. Guth has also worked on the thorny problem of how to define probabilities in an eternally inflating universe, which is difficult because any event that is possible will occur an infinite number of times.

Guth’s previous honors include election to the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; the Franklin Medal for Physics from the Franklin Institute; the Dirac Prize from the International Center for Theoretical Physics; and the Cosmology Prize from the Peter Gruber Foundation. He is the author of one general-audience book, The Inflationary Universe: The Quest for a New Theory of Cosmic Origins (Perseus Books, 1997).

The Milner Foundation, established by Russian Internet entrepreneur Yuri Milner, is dedicated to science and technology causes. Milner graduated from Moscow State University in 1985 with an advanced degree in theoretical physics and subsequently conducted research at the Institute of Physics in the Russian Academy of Sciences.

“I am delighted to announce the launch of the Fundamental Physics Prize and welcome its first recipients,” Milner said in a statement. “I hope the new prize will bring long-overdue recognition to the greatest minds working in the field of fundamental physics, and if this helps encourage young people to be inspired by science, I will be deeply gratified.”

The Milner Foundation also announced today the creation of an annual New Horizons in Physics Prize, targeted at promising young researchers and carrying a prize of $100,000. Both it and the Fundamental Physics Prize are described as “dedicated to advancing our knowledge of the universe at the deepest level by awarding annual prizes for scientific breakthroughs, as well as communicating the excitement of fundamental physics to the public.”

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