27 million reasons for students to pursue science technology, engineering, and math degrees

Earlier this week, smart people around the world became millionaires. Alan Guth and Andrei Linde, physics professors at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford, respectively, were two of nine physicists who received $3 million each from the Russia-based Milner Foundation. All kids looking for a reason to focus on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education just had 27 million of them drop in their collective lap.

The nine winners of the Fundamental Physics Prize now form the selection committee for future winners, since they comprise the inaugural recipients of the award. The Milner Foundation was established by Yuri Milner, a Russian Internet tycoon, who supports science and technology.

MIT’s Guth was famously quoted this week as mentioning how stunned he was to see his bank account soar from $200 to $3,000,188 (he had to pay a $12 wire transfer fee).

Any child who has a proclivity toward inventing inflationary cosmology or contributing to the theory for the generation of cosmological density fluctuations arising from quantum fluctuations in the early universe, as Guth did, should be encouraged to pursue those dreams. Somebody has to. And if Guth had never invented inflationary cosmology, then Linde would never have had the opportunity to refine his model.

Other recipients of this year’s $3 million prize, which, by the way, is more than double the amount recipients of the Nobel Prize receive, were Nima Arkani-Hamed, Juan Maldacena, Nathan Seiberg and Edward Witten, all of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey; Alexei Kitaev of the California Institute of Technology; Maxim Kontsevich of the University of Miami; and Ashoke Sen of the Harish-Chandra Research Institute in India.

Now, I’m sure we all know the details of inflationary cosmology and all of the brain-melting theories these nine pioneers have thrust upon us, so I won’t bore you by recapping them. But here’s the part that kicked me square in the jaw. After announcing the award winners, Milner said, "I hope the new prize will bring long-overdue recognition to the greatest minds working in the field of fundamental physics, and, if this helps encourage young people to be inspired by science, I will be deeply gratified."

Yes, $27 million seems like a nice, round encouraging sum. And the Milner Foundation kicked in a yearly New Horizons in Physics Prize for young researchers, which will make some lucky physicist-in-training $100,000 wealthier (minus the $12 wire transfer fee, most likely).

Coincidentally, Sally Ride, who was the first American woman in space, also was a physicist and one of the developers of the space shuttle’s robot arm. She died just a week before Milner’s awards were given, but the legacy she leaves behind could very well yield more recipients of Yuri Milner’s money.

Sally Ride Science (www.sallyridescience.com) was founded more than a decade ago with the intent to make science and engineering cool again. Ride built the back end of the program by providing STEM-related educational programs and materials for the next generation and encouraging youth, especially girls, to pursue a career in the STEM disciplines.

Sally Ride Science Academy is a place where teachers and trainers can find the fuel they need to rocket beyond the gravity of traditional educational limitations. The Sally Ride science festivals bring girls together with real-world scientists for an inspirational orbit of the discipline. And middle-school girls can make a splash at summer camps with hands-on science projects.

It all starts with programs like this. But the final destination is anyone’s guess. By the time the next generation of physicists, scientists, engineers, and mathematicians become adults, the sky’s the limit.