He’s a brilliant professor, but in science that can hardly make one rich or famous. But Juan Maldacena can now consider himself both. The Argentinian-American physicist was named a Milner Foundation Fundamental Physics Prize recipient, one of nine physicists who each received a $3 million prize.
Maldacena – a theoretical astrophysics professor at the Institute for Advanced Study School of Natural Sciences (the famed institution that Albert Einstein called his academic home) – was one of just nine scientists to receive the esteemed prize. The award was established by Yuri Milner, a famous tech investor who made his billions investing in online startups like Groupon and Facebook. And unlike the Nobel Prize, which awards $1.2 million or the Templeton Prize, which awards an upwards of $1.7 million, the Fundamental Physics Prize is the only prize of its kind to award such a sizeable sum to a single individual.
While Maldacena was hand picked by Milner as one of the inagural class of prize recipients, Maldacena and his colleagues will decide next year’s award winners.
For Maldacena, whose ground-breaking work in string theory, quantum gravity and quantum field theory has earned him double-digit prizes and honors over the course of his career, the prize represents the value of his research to the subject of physics.
“I was always interested in understanding how nature works,” says the 43-year-old, who taught at Harvard University before joining the faculty at the Institute for Advanced Study. “I always wanted to understand the fundamental laws of physics and in particular, the laws that govern space time at the shortest distances.”
Maldacena, who received his undergraduate degree in Argentina before completing his Ph.D. at Princeton University in 1996, says that “the presence of a vibrant research community with high standards and a commitment to finding the truth” has played a deciding factor in the success of his work. In fact, four of the nine Fundamental Physics Prize recipients work at the Institute for Advanced Study and together work on complex mathematical theories explaining basic particles and forces of the universe.
For Maldacena, the lucrative prize has little effect on the day-to-day mechanics of his research. He says jokingly, that he will now be able to pay off his mortgage. What will keep him focused, he says, is still the same – his quest to discover the mysteries of the universe.
“The examples of other researchers, who have often had to work for many years to make important discoveries, inspires me,” says Maldacena.