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Stanford physicist wins $3 million fundamental physics prize

Stanford physics professor Andrei Linde has been named an inaugural winner of the $3 million Fundamental Physics Prize. The award recognizes Linde's work developing cosmic inflation theory, a modification on big bang theory that generates a more accurate description of the birth of the universe.

L.A. Cicero Andrei Linde portrait

Stanford physics Professor Andrei Linde was recognized for his work on cosmic inflation theory.

Andrei Linde freely admits that when he began developing theories of cosmic inflation in the early 1980s, the concept seemed like pure science fiction. But, as experimental data has verified many parts of his work, inflationary theory has been accepted as a leading cosmological paradigm. In recognition, Stanford Physics Professor Linde was named an inaugural recipient of the $3 million Fundamental Physics Prize.

The new prize, which was awarded by the Milner Foundation, recognizes Linde and eight other physicists for their "transformative advances in the field." It is the most lucrative academic prize in existence, and, unlike the Nobel Prize, is not split among winners. Each will receive a full $3 million.

When Linde was informed that he was a recipient of the prize, he was put in such a state of disbelief that he joked with the caller that he would consider accepting. "Then I realized that I was making the most stupid joke of my life, and said that I would of course accept it," he said. "It's a huge prize. It's unbelievable."

Linde was hand-selected by the Milner Foundation's founder, Yuri Milner, a Russian theoretical physicist and Internet entrepreneur who has earned billions through his investments. Linde and his fellow laureates will serve as the selection committee for future recipients; going forward, it is expected that the foundation will award one scientist a year.

The existence of a prize such as this is important for fostering theoretical science, Linde said. "We now have the ability to say the best people, who changed the way we think about our world, that they are doing something fantastic. Some of them might not get wide official recognition until there is experimental proof, which may come 10, 20 or 50 years from now. But if we all agree that what they're doing is great, that it transforms the nature of science in a wonderful way, then let's do something good for them right away."

Cosmic inflation – which was proposed by another Fundamental Physics Prize winner, Alan Guth of MIT, and refined and developed by Linde – is a good example of how a theoretical concept can take decades to gain critical recognition in the scientific community. "It looked totally like science fiction," Linde said. "It was absolutely speculative and strange, but also magnificent."

Inflationary theory began as a modification of conventional big bang theory. Instead of the universe beginning as a rapidly expanding fireball, the universe inflated extremely rapidly from a tiny piece of space and became exponentially larger in a fraction of a second while still maintaining its energy density. Following this stage of inflation, Linde explained, the "inflaton field" decayed, the universe became hot and its subsequent evolution can be described by the big bang theory. This idea immediately attracted lots of attention because it could provide a unique solution to many difficult problems of the standard big bang theory.

However, as Guth immediately realized, the decay of the inflaton field in his scenario would make the universe extremely inhomogeneous, in contradiction with observational data. Linde later modified the model into a concept called "new inflation" and again to "eternal chaotic inflation," both of which generated predictions that closely matched actual observations of the sky. Simulations of fluctuations in the inflaton field can explain the formation of galaxies, and several experiments, set up to verify various versions of inflation, have generated data that match Linde's predictions with great accuracy.

"This doesn't prove that the latest versions of inflationary theory are totally true," he said. "We're always waiting for what the next experiment will tell us." The most important next experiment comes in the form of the European Planck satellite, which will test inflation theory with much greater accuracy than previous experiments. Linde is keen to see results of the ongoing Planck research, which he describes as a "beautiful experiment," and is ready if the Planck data call for further tweaks to inflation theory.

As for the $3 million prize, Linde says he will wait a while before making any decisions: "For people like me, who do not have a strong financial background, deciding what to do with this money is equally complicated as deciding what to do with the formation of the universe."

In his message to Guth, congratulating him on his own prize, Linde wrote: "Yes, it is almost unbelievable, I was not prepared to it at all, but if we believe in the possibility to create the universe from nothing, and in its subsequent eternal self-reproduction, then our mind should eventually accept a simpler concept of creation of wealth and its teleportation by wire. Nevertheless, it is an emotional shock, but the one that I am more than happy to share with you."

 

Media Contact

Andrei Linde, professor of physics, 650-723-2687, alinde@stanford.edu alex.dunn@stanford.edu

Bjorn Carey, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-1944, bccarey@stanford.edu