Thursday, March 21, 2013

Food for the mind: the Fundamental Physics Prize ceremony

This is as close to a live blog as I've ever got: the Fundamental Physics Prize ceremony took place this evening at the International Conference Centre in Geneva, ending about 15 minutes ago with Morgan Freeman wishing us a good night. [Note: I wrote these words last night but was too sleepy, and hungry, to complete the blog...]

When I realised I would be able to attend this ceremony by astutely timing a CERN visit (which had a different motivation), the first thing that struck me was the glamour. I would wear my tuxedo, sip champagne, consume caviar and smoked salmon and mingle with colleagues and friends. In the end some of this came true, but not all. Details at the end.

For those who don't know, this prize is Russian billionaire Yuri Milner's way of "glamourising" physics. As Morgan Freeman, the charismatic anchor for the event, put it: every profession has its way of publicly recognising those who reach "the apex of their sphere": actors, business people, politicians... Scientists should receive the same type of acclaim.

Having said this he frowned, pretending to be listening on his earphones and announced: "I've just been told a sphere does not have an apex".  His wit and humour was backed by a good deal of homework. Early in the evening he told us that European politics was a mirror of physics: the anti-immigrant policy was the "exclusion principle", the fiscal policy was the "uncertainty principle" etc.

After a brief piano recital by Denis Fursaev, the nine original winners of the FPP were called on stage: Arkani-Hamed, Linde, Guth, Kontsevich, Maldacena, Seiberg, Witten, Kitaev and Sen. Ashoke seemed to be relaxed and quite enjoying himself. I took a video of Morgan Freeman announcing Ashoke's prize:


My colleague and friend Rohini Godbole and I applauded vigorously for Ashoke. Among other things, we were all in Stony Brook together during the late 1970's. (We also attended the ceremony as his guests.)

Linde made a short and fairly humorous speech on behalf of the nine laureates. Then it was time for Stephen Hawking, who showed up looking a little older than I last remember him (not surprising since 12 years have elapsed...). Here's a picture of him at the cocktail party preceding the event, in attractive company:

The Special Prize was personally given to him by Yuri Milner. Actually Milner gave it to Lucy Hawking, Stephen's daughter. In fact, like many people when they first meet SWH, Milner nervously avoided Hawking himself and ran off the stage at the first opportunity. Hawking gave a nice little speech about his scientific contributions, which are of course very impressive.

I may be mixing up the order of things, but at some point there was a brief speech by the designer - Olafur Eliasson - of the "trophy", a wiry metallic sphere the size of a football that looks like this:

For me, the most moving part of the ceremony was what followed: seven experimental physicists, all associated with CERN and the LHC: Lyn Evans, Michel Della Negra, Tejinder Virdee, Guido Tonelli, Peter Jenni, Joe Incandela and Fabiola Gianotti, came up on stage to receive a Special Prize. Unlike the original gang of nine, who didn't get to address us (other than Linde), these people all gave short acknowledgement speeches. All referred to the collective nature of the LHC, the decades of hard work, the globalised nature of the research, the people who could not be here but had made important contributions, and most of all the student and postdocs. A very beautiful tribute to what is surely among the greatest achievements in the history of science. Fabiola's talk was particularly personal and touching, she is a really great communicator. And far and away the best dressed:

This was followed by the appearance of an unimpressive human being on the screen ("live from New York") called Charlie Rose. I knew the name only vaguely but it soon became clear I hadn't missed anything. In that simpering manner of American TV hosts, he asked a question to each of the seven awardees on stage. The questions were banal and his face while receiving the answers was expressively vacuous. Here's a sample: "I've been, uh, hearing words today like "gravity" and "dark matter", so could you tell us, uh, where all this is heading?". To another person he asked "What were the challenges?" An avoidable part of the event, and a waste of time.

After this Denis Fursaev reappeared and played four piano pieces. He really is a very fine and expressive pianist and I would like to hear more of him in the future. I didn't recognise the first two pieces, but they sounded vaguely romantic and Russian or East European. The third was Grieg's "Hall of the Mountain King" and the fourth, a Duke Ellington medley in which "Take the A train" and "Caravan" were briefly recognisable.

Then it was time to move on to the New Horizons in Physics prizes: these were for young physicists who had made a significant impact on the field. The prize went to Niklas Beisert, Davide Gaiotto and Zohar Komargodski, of whom I met the last two at the cocktail party before the event and completely forgot to congratulate them. All these awards are richly deserved. The prize to Beisert was announced by Ashoke Sen, this was the only time we got to hear his voice.

Next came the Frontiers of Physics prize - awarded to Joe Polchinski, Alexander Polyakov and a jazz trio called the Topological Insulators (Kane, Molenkamp and Zhang). Polyakov looked bemused but thanked his wife for putting up with his research, which he described as a "form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder". He has long been a hero of mine: his contributions in Quantum Field Theory are nothing short of stunning (strings, instantons, monopoles, confinement... and the roots of AdS/CFT) and all this except the last one happened when he was working in difficult circumstances in the Soviet Union. In those days he would sometimes visit Scandinavian countries (because the Soviet authorities allowed that) and everyone would flock there to hear him, as I once did in 1988. In those days he also once had to give a seminar on the French side of CERN since he didn't have a Swiss visa!

We were told that one of these three people (counting the Insulators as one person) would be the winner of the next FPP, to be announced at the end of the ceremony. I was rooting for Polyakov. True, I had just sat through a seminar by him at CERN earlier in the day that was simultaneously incomprehensible and controversial - but so what. I've never really followed anything he's said, but his written work - particularly from the early days - is brilliant.

After this came the most boring part of the event - after Charlie Rose - namely, an appearance by an "English classical crossover soprano" called Sarah Brightman. The stage was turned into a glittering, pulsating mess and she walked on flapping her hands vaguely in slow-motion like a little bird trying in vain to fly. After an operatic piece that featured "la luna" multiple times (pictures of the moon were projected for those who had missed the point), she lost all pretence of good taste and sang three songs at earsplitting volume. One of them had a vaguely Arabic-disco sound. The lady sitting on my left had her fingers in her ears. The fourth song, "Con te partiro/Time to say goodbye", had been a hit for her and Andrea Bocelli in 1996. I knew the song well, since in 1997 I spent three months in Amsterdam with a transistor radio tuned to a station that, apparently, owned only this record and played it all day long. It was the least intolerable of her performances, particularly as she had promised to say goodbye after it. But she did not keep her promise, discovering an "urgent request" from someone she could not name that led to yet another song from her.

By now it was nearing 11 and most of us were starving. The only remaining event was the announcement of the single winner from among the three Frontiers awardees. Alan Guth came on stage and was handed an envelope containing the winner's name, Oscar style. Morgan Freeman requested him to "collapse the wave function" by opening it. Guth gamely responded that not every physicist believes in the collapse of the wave function. Some, like himself, prefer the idea of branching into parallel universes. He assured us that in one of those universes the people whose names were not in that envelope would be winners. (Sure, and in one of them Charlie Rose would be a winner too!!). For the first time that evening I held my breath. When the name of Alexander Polyakov was read out I shouted "YES!" much to the surprise of people sitting around me. I'm second to none in my admiration of Polchinski and also the Topological Insulators, but Polyakov rocks.

Now I have to review the pre-event cocktail party. I was hoping for glamour and champagne and it was there in abundance. I got to dress up:

and chatted with Sumathi Rao, Ashoke Sen, Ed Witten, Chiara Nappi and several others. In fact in terms of meeting the winners, the whole week has been great: I've already attended talks at CERN by Arkani-Hamed, Witten and Polyakov, and lunched with Joe Incandela and with Nati Seiberg and Juan Maldacena.

But back to the cocktail party: the only food of any quality was food for the mind. The snacks were terrible: bruschetta on cheap bread, mediocre cheese and olives... and leathery kababs on skewers. As the evening wore on, Rohini and I (and I suppose everyone else) became more and more hungry. But by the time we were out of there it was 11:30 PM and there isn't any food to be had in Geneva at that time. I don't know what Rohini did (she was staying at the CERN hostel) but I went back to my hotel room and this was my dinner:

I suppose going to bed hungry provided a sort of spiritual conclusion to the whole evening...


prasad said...

Charlie Rose probably isn't the right person for this context. He does a lot better when he has time to prepare, and is talking face to face with one person for an hour. His interviews are (imo) superb, and pretty much always extract something interesting from the interviewee. Doesn't make himself the star, just poses good questions and lets the subject speak. Check out for example his joint interview with E.O. Wilson and James Watson.

Neelima said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this one, especially the last two photos. If those ladies are putting up with these two guys, they can't be waiters! (Runs to avoid thrown bathroom chappal). Next time you attend these do-s, pack some theplas (or whatever).

Chittaranjan Gauba said...

My sympathies! And the next time you're struck by late night hunger pangs in Geneva, do consider The Brasserie Lipp (Rue de la Confederation 8). Open seven days a week until 2 a.m., and on Thursdays the chef recommends Le Cheeseburger de Maison in addition to the usual tapas. On week-ends, many other nightspots will surely feed you well, such as Le Cheval Blanc (the bar in Place de l'Octroi), also open until 2 a.m. Enjoy!

Chittaranjan Gauba said...

As a non-physicist but as an ignorant admirer of the discipline and of its proponents and followers, must record my appreciation of a very entertaining record of the events of the awards evening. And let me also thank you for educating me on the possibility of an alternative to the collapse of a wave function (or should I thank Alan Guth?). Ever since childhood, when I first encountered that oh-so-ominous phrase, I have been haunted by the thoughts of what it could possibly mean, having little or no idea of what a "wave function" really was nor how it could possibly "collapse" (like a house of cards?). While I may not find Dr. Guth's alternative very plausible, at least it seems vaguely understandable, since one does have some idea of what a "universe" is and if there is more than one, the thought these could co-exist i.e. "in parallel" is doubtless more fulfilling than if they were merely serial or sequential...

But does Alan Guth really maintain that The Cat is simultaneously alive and dead?

Chittaranjan Gauba said...

Referring to Sarah Brightman as "an" English crossover soprano is being a little unfair to the lady, who after all practically invented the genre. She was, of course, married at one time to Andrew Lloyrd Weber, himself a succesful crossover composer (if mixing and matching and mis-matching musical traditions and themes can be considered 'crossover').

"Con Te Partiro" has suffered greatly from over-exposure (it became the highest-selling pop single in Germany in an amazingly brief three weeks) but there is perhaps little doubt that Ms. Brightman's version of Weber's "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina" was much, much preferable to Madonna's.

I'm of course not saying you should have asked her instead of Stephen Hawkins for an autograph, but a signed copy of "Cats" or of "Phantom of the Opera" would have been a nice addition to your music shelf...