Physicist Alan Guth wins major $3 million science award

The Fundamental Physics Prize is brand new and recognizes "transformative advances in the field." One of the winners, Alan Guth, talks about the big win.

Alan Guth.

This week, Russian tech investor Yuri Milner awarded nine physicists $3 million -- each. The Fundamental Physics Prize is brand new and recognizes "transformative advances in the field."

We talk to one of the winners, Alan Guth, who is a professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, about what it was like to win the big prize. "They just wired it into my account," says Guth. "So one day I logged in and suddenly it was $3 million-plus."

Despite winning large this time, Guth warns, "I certainly would not advise any young person to go into physics for the money."

Kai Ryssdal: There was some news this week the likes of which we haven't heard much of lately: Two true stories of winning the jackpot. One a scientist, the other, a poker player.

First, the scientist. Alan Guth, a physics professor at MIT, has won $3 million for his work in particle physics, his adaptation of the big bang theory, as he puts it. The money is part of a prize set up by a Russian high-tech investor named Yuri Milner. Sort of a counterpoint to the Nobel prize, except with more money.

Good to have you on, Professor.

Alan Guth: Thank you.

Ryssdal: First of all, I suppose congratulations are in order, right?

Guth: I guess so. Thanks a lot.

Ryssdal: How did you find out about this award?

Guth: I found out about it initially by telephone call from one of the other winners. They realized that if Yuri Milner called me up with his Russian accent and told me he'd give me $3 million if I gave him my bank account number, I'd probably hang up. I was flabbergasted.

Ryssdal: How did you get this money? Did they really just wire it into your account?

Guth: That's right, they just wired it into my account. So one day I logged in and suddenly it was $3 million-plus.

Ryssdal: We should all have such problems, huh?

Guth: That's right, that's right. The bank charged a $12 wire fee, but I decided that was OK.

Ryssdal: You're OK with that?

Guth: Under the circumstances.

Ryssdal: What are you going to do with the money, Professor, you figure that out yet?

Guth: No. My wife and I have started to talk about it, but we decided that we were both still so shellshocked that we weren't really in any condition to think about it intelligently.

Ryssdal: Do you suppose that smart, young high school and college students will see this and say, 'Man, I've got to get into physics. There are these prizes out there'?

Guth: I certainly would not advise any young person to go into physics for the money, in spite of the fact of these prizes being there. But nonetheless, I think the fact that these prizes are there does, I think, indicate that society values this work. And it's my belief that that does have an effect on young people.

Ryssdal: Alan Guth, he's a professor of physics at MIT. Professor, thanks very much.

Guth: Thank you, Kai.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

Alan Guth.

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