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Seven U. Affiliates win Breakthrough Prize

Three University professors and four University alumni have been named recipients of the 2017 Breakthrough Prize. The professors include visiting math professor Jean Bourgain and physics professors Simone Giombi and Frans Pretorius.

The Breakthrough Prize was started in 2012 by Sergey Brin, Anne Wojcicki, Yuri and Julia Milner, and Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan. They seek to honor “paradigm-shifting research in the fields of fundamental physics, life sciences, and mathematics,” and have awarded $200 million in prizes since 2012.


The alumni who won the Breakthrough Prize include Harvard physics professor Cumrun Vafa GS ’85, University of Oregon math professor Ben Elias ’05, California Institute of Technology physics professor Kip Thorne GS ’65, and MIT physics professor Rainer Weiss. Weiss completed his postdoctoral work at the University from 1962 to 1964.

Bourgain is the IBM von Neumann Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, and was the sole recipient of the Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics. He was awarded the prize for “multiple transformative contributions to analysis, combinatorics, partial differential equations, high-dimensional geometry and number theory.” Bourgain received an award of $3 million.

Giombi and Pretorius, who are both University physics professors, received the New Horizons in Physics Prize, which is awarded to early-career physics researchers who have produced important results in fundamental physics. Giombi's research deals with string theory and quantum field theory, while Pretorius’ work focuses on gravitational wave physics. Giombi received an award of $50,000, and Pretorius received $100,000.

Giombi said that he is deeply honored to receive this award, and he plans to donate a portion of the money to charity. He explained that his recent results showed that certain field theories relevant to statistical mechanics and condensed matter physics may have an equivalent description in terms of certain gravitational models in higher dimensions.

"This type of correspondences often lead to non-trivial insights both on the nature of quantum gravity, and on general properties of quantum field theory," Giombi said.

Pretorius said that he is delighted and honored to receive the award, and that he plans to donate a portion of it to charity. He noted that the work that he is doing is especially exciting given the discovery of gravitational waves earlier this year, and he hopes that puzzles surrounding dark matter and Einstein's classical theory of gravity will be solved by further advancements in the field.


“I think this is only the beginning of an entirely new field of astronomy where we'll be able to ‘listen’ to many interesting phenomena in the universe that aren't observable by other means,” Pretorius said. “My advice for students interested in physics is to dive in and go for it — we're living in exciting times!”

He added that the University has offered a supportive and vibrant environment, and that the students are exceptional.

Vafa, who is the Donner Professor of Science at Harvard, received the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, along with Joseph Polchinski of the University of California-Santa Barbara and Andrew Strominger of Harvard University. Vafa's research involves string theory, and he is currently studying the geometry of extra dimensions and the extended objects in these dimensions to understand macroscopic physics in four dimensions. Vafa received an award of $1 million, a portion of which he said would go to philanthropic causes.

“I am delighted to receive such a prize,” Vafa said. “More important than its monetary value, is the recognition of the work that my collaborators, over 150 physicists and mathematicians, and I have been involved with in the past 30 years.”

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Vafa added that students should follow their true interests and not be swayed by current hot topics. He recommended that students should explore fields outside of their concentration as he met his wife at the University while taking a Persian poetry class.

Institute of Advanced Study physics professor Edward Witten GS ’76, who advised Vafa, said that he was a remarkably creative student and that it was obvious that he would go on to accomplish great things. Witten received the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics in 2012.

Vafa added that studying under Witten led to a period of exciting intellectual growth that had a dramatic impact on his thinking about physics.

Elias, who is an assistant professor in the Math Department at the University of Oregon, received the New Horizons in Mathematics Prize, which is awarded to early-career mathematicians who have produced important results in mathematics. Elias studies geometric representation theory, and for his senior thesis, he worked on a project in abstract algebra called “Minimally faithful group actions and p-groups.” Elias received an award of $100,000.

Elias said that he has a great deal of respect for the Breakthrough Prize's mission, which is improving society's culture, and was surprised and honored to receive the award.

"[The Breakthrough Foundation] wants people's heroes to be scientists, not celebrities," he said. "They want science and the pursuit of knowledge to be seen as the most exciting and glamorous activities."

University of Illinois-Chicago math professor Ramin Takloo-Bighash, who was a University professor and advised Elias on his senior thesis, said that Elias’ thesis dealt with Cayley's Theorem in elementary group theory. Takloo-Bighash said that he expected Elias to carry out explicit computations, but was surprised when Elias was able to formulate an algorithmic procedure within one week. He added that Elias’ work became the topic of a paper that he co-wrote with Elias and Lior Silberman GS '05, a professor at the University of British Columbia.

“I have followed Ben's mathematical career over the last few years and I have been continuously impressed with his work,” Takloo-Bighash said, noting that Elias published seven papers this year alone.

One of Elias’ most notable accomplishments was his proof of the 40-year-old Kazhdan-Lusztig Conjecture in 2014. Takloo-Bighash said that this was a major achievement for the field of representation theory.

“This is an extremely important area of modern mathematics which sits at the crossroads of several areas of mathematics with applications all over the place,” he said.

Thorne and Weiss received the Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, which was awarded in May of this year, for their work on the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, which they used to discover the existence of gravitational waves. Thorne and Weiss will share a $1 million prize with California Institute of Technology professor Ronald Drever, and the 1,012 people who worked on LIGO will split $2 million.

Weiss said that he is pleased but somewhat embarrassed to receive the award, as he noted that there are always many more people equally worthy and responsible for the work in a large collaboration. He explained that he plans to donate most of the prize money to MIT's Physics Department to fund a graduate student fellowship in experimental physics. Weiss added that he enjoyed working under Professor Robert Dicke '38 as a postdoctoral student, and recommended that students follow their passions.

"Work on those things you enjoy doing and hope that you are lucky enough to have colleagues you respect and like," he said. "This has been my experience in gravitational wave research."

Previous recipients of the Breakthrough Prize include Institute for Advanced Study professors Nima Arkani-Hamed, Juan Maldacena GS ’96, Nathan Seiberg, Richard Taylor GS ’88, and Witten, along with University professors B. Andrei Bernevig, Alexander Polyakov, and David Botstein. Nobel laureate Arthur McDonald, who received the Breakthrough Prize last year, completed his postdoctoral work at the University. Alumni who have won the award include Eric Lander ’78, the Director of the Broad Institute at MIT, and Terence Tao GS ’96, a professor of mathematics at UCLA.