Famous Maths Professor Says Zuckerberg's $US3 Million Maths Prize Is NOT A Good Idea

Mark ZuckerbergThe AtlanticFacebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg

On Friday, billionaires Mark Zuckerberg and Yuri Milner announced a new $US3 million prize for mathematics known as the Breakthrough Prize in Mathematics.

This is the third such prize that the Valley’s elite have created.

In fact, Zuckerberg and Milner announced the new prize at an exclusive, star-studded gala to announce the winners of the other two prizes: the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics and the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.

With Breakthrough prizes, each recipient gets his or her own $US3 million. The money is donated by Google’s Sergey Brin & Anne Wojcicki, Alibaba Group’s Jack Ma & Cathy Zhang, Yuri & Julia Milner, and Mark Zuckerberg & Priscilla Chan.

At Friday’s Gala, seven scientists won, meaning $US21 million was handed out. The ceremony was hosted by actor Kevin Spacey, with awards presented by prize sponsors and celebrities including Conan O’Brien, Glenn Close, Rob Lowe and Michael Hall.

The point is that “scientists should be celebrated as heroes,” said Anne Wojcicki and Sergey Brin in a press release. The event will even air on television, on the Science Channel at 9 p.m., January 27.

But not everyone thinks these prizes are a good idea. Peter Woit, a physics and maths professor at Columbia University, speaks out against them on his blog Not Even Wrong. Woit says that this prize often goes to people working in the same narrow field of physics. He also notes that all seven winners on Friday were men.

He sees a lot of flaws with the new maths prize:

I’ve written extensively about the “Fundamental Physics Prize” and what I see as the worst problem with it (heavily rewarding and propping up a failed research program).

… Based on the other prizes, it seems likely that the winners will be mostly prominent US academics, people already well-rewarded by the current academic star system.

… so the main argument for the prizes is that the money (and Academy Awards-style ceremonies) will help make them celebrities, and that this is a good thing.

… the whole concept is problematic. The US today is increasingly dominated by a grotesque winner-take-all culture that values wealth and celebrity above all else

… I don’t see any reason to believe this is going to lead to better mathematics.

Woit is famous for outspoken opinions. His 2006 book “Not Even Wrong” documented the flaws in “String Theory,” which tries to explain how everything in the world is inter-related. It was an extremely popular physics theory when his book was published.

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