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Tue Sep 02 11:11:07 SAST 2014

Stephen Hawking, CERN scoop world’s richest science prize

Reuters | 11 December, 2012 17:34
Physicist Stephen Hawking is seen in his office at the University of Cambridge in this photo handed out by the Science Museum and dated December 2011.
Image by: HANDOUT / Reuters

Stephen Hawking, the British cosmologist who urged people to “be curious” in the Paralympics opening ceremony, has landed the richest prize in science for his work on quantum gravity and how black holes emit radiation.

Wheelchair-bound Hawking won $3 million from Russian Internet entrepreneur Yuri Milner, who set up his prize this year to address what he regards as a lack of recognition in the modern world for leading scientists.

Alongside Hawking, a second $3 million award has gone to the scientists behind the discovery this year of a new subatomic particle that behaves like the theoretical Higgs boson, imagined almost half a century ago and responsible for bestowing mass on other fundamental particles.

Diagnosed with motor neurone disease at the age of 21 and told in 1963 he had two years to live, Hawking, now 70, has become one of the world’s most recognisable scientists after guest appearances on The Simpsons and on Star Trek.

At the opening ceremony of the Paralympic Games in London in August, speaking through his computerised voice system, he said:

“Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Be curious.”

He was awarded the Special Fundamental Physics prize for what the committee called his “deep contributions to quantum gravity and quantum aspects of the early universe” as well has his discovery that black holes emit radiation.

“No one undertakes research in physics with the intention of winning a prize. It is the joy of discovering something no one knew before,” Hawking said in comments emailed to Reuters.

“Nevertheless prizes like these prizes play an important role in giving public recognition for achievement in physics.

They increase the stature of physics and interest in it.”

Hawking said he planned to use the money to help his daughter with her autistic son and may also buy a holiday home – “not that I take many holidays because I the enjoy my work in theoretical physics”.

Higgs discovery

He shares the limelight with leaders of the project to build and run the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) particle accelerator at the CERN research centre near Geneva, which led to the discovery of a new particle that is thought to be the boson imagined by theorist Peter Higgs in 1964.

In the Standard Model, which governs scientific understanding of the basic make-up of the universe, the Higgs boson gives mass to other fundamental particles.

But in the half century before scientists at CERN started smashing particles together in the LHC and study the results, it sat in the realm of theory.

Although the work of building the LHC and running experiments in the particle accelerator involved thousands of scientists and engineers, the prize has been awarded to past and present team leaders.

The winners include the head of the LHC Lyn Evans, and the two spokespeople, Fabiola Gianotti and Joe Incandela, who presented the discovery to applause and cheers from the gathered physicists at CERN earlier this year.

Michel Della Negra, another prize-winner who for 15 years from 1990 led a team that built one of the two giant detectors used to find the Higgs at the LHC, told Reuters the award was a big surprise.

“For me it was totally unexpected,” he said. “I didn’t even know the prize existed.”

Della Negra receives $250 000 because the $3 million is being split three ways between Evans, and the two teams working on the Atlas and CMS detectors. Two leaders of the Atlas team will get $500000 each while the four from CMS get $250 000 apiece.

Although some of the recipients have pledged to put the money into projects to support science, singling out so few individuals from such a large project is sure to raise some eyebrows at CERN.

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