Wednesday, September 08, 2010

“Most Couragous Postdoc” Prize

Some months back, I got a mini-grant from the Foundational Questions Institute, FQXi. The proposal was to award a prize to the “most courageous postdoc.” The details are now settled and we're ready for nominations! You find all details on this website

The deadline is September 30th. Note that you cannot nominate yourself.

The criterium for nomination is that the candidate shall have demonstrated extraordinary passion for unraveling the secrets of the universe and big unsolved problems in FQXi's focus areas, and has done so by
  • Dedicating time and effort to develop own theories despite this bringing great risk and not being helpful to one’s career;
  • Following one’s interests in fundamental physics despite the local environment being unsupportive or even outright discouraging;
  • Disagreeing on the consensus despite the likeliness of being ridiculed; and,
  • Publicly demonstrating one’s passion.

The idea for this prize goes actually back to a tongue-in-cheek footnote that I wrote more than two years ago to a blogpost in a state of utter frustration (can't recall exactly what I was frustrated about though):
    “The Sabine Hossenfelder Award recognizes annually the most courageous postdoc in theoretical physics. Courage can be shown by stubbornly working on topics where there hasn't been progress for several decades (with or without outcome), changing fields and starting all over again (with or without success), public political involvement (with or without impact), questioning the common sensus, criticising the majority opinion, or disagreeing with established senior researchers. Courage should not be confused with stupidity, in neither category.”

I sincerely believe that science, and theoretical physics in particular, needs young researchers who are a little crazy, who take a risk and do their own thing, even if it looks completely hopeless or insane for everybody else. I hope that this little price serves to document their efforts are not wasted, but appreciated.


  1. Or rather, great competition!

  2. "I sincerely believe that science, and theoretical physics in particular, needs young researchers who are a little crazy, who take a risk and do their own thing, even if it looks completely hopeless or insane for everybody else."

    Here here!

    "Note that you cannot nominate yourself."

    So, somebody else has to think you are crazy to get money huh. :)

  3. Nicolas Yunes
    nyunes at-connector
    Department of Physics
    Princeton University
    Jadwin Hall
    Princeton NJ 08544

    arXiv:0811.0181, 0907.2562v3, and following. Adding a parity-dependent Chern-Simmons term to quantized gravitation is mathematically necessary and Officially intolerable. When the maths come forth, Uncle Al has two experiments to test them in existing apparatus with commercial materials,
    The worst it can do is succeed. Somebody should look.

  4. There was an article in Science in the mid-70s about physics in the 3rd world. They interviewed one physicist from Bangladesh who had lived through the horrible era in which East and West Pakistan were divided. Since the official policy was to kill just about anyone who could read or write, he spent his time in hiding, working on physics to stay sane, and some how he survived.

    I hope the award goes to someone who has triumphed over adversity, but didn't have to go through anything quite like that.

  5. Different and crazy is almost always discriminated against. You'd probably discrimnate too. Paul Erdos was descrimnated against by the Princeton Center for Advanced Mathematics. I email people for info about graduate programs, and either the first or second email, in which I give too much info about my different ways, and I don't ever hear back. And why should they respond? It's results that count, not difference. A weird person who never produces extraordinary results is just weird.

  6. Hi Bee,

    I wasn’t aware you had taken this award before. Despite all the descriptive qualifiers which FQXi offers it really comes down to recognizing researchers who trust in going with what their gut tells them rather then what their peer's consensus might be. To be truthful though one could make the argument doing so is not all that scientific as thought of in the normal sense. This reminds me of Einstein’s remark when asked by a student “what if Eddington’s solar eclipse result hadn’t supported your theory of General Relativity"; to which he responded:

    "Then I would have felt sorry for the dear Lord. The theory is correct."

    llse Rosenthal-Schneider-Reality and Scientific Truth : Discussions with Einstein, von Laue, and Planck (1980)- page 74



  7. My vote is for N. Poplawski for his pioneering work on torson in cosmology.
    (all this he has done without any support. His main
    day job is in biophysics)

  8. Ilse Rosenthal-Schneider-Reality and Scientific Truth

    Hello Phil,
    First I was stunned (three Names and
    one of them "Reality"!), then I googled for that
    name and foond, that this is a common error
    in many citations.
    That Ilse's name is Rosenthal-Schneider,
    and the book title is "Reality and Scientific..."
    Georg :=)

  9. Hi Georg,

    Yes I should have used a few brackets to make things clearer as that’s the trouble when dealing with hyphenated names:-) None the less I think Einstein would have formed to be a candidate for this award in his early years and yet as it turned out he succeeded just the same. The real trouble of course being the theories are getting harder to confirm or deny so perhaps work in this direction is what they should be encouraging at present rather than the development of still more radical theories.



  10. By "work in that direction" do you mean better experiments through better technology? Sure seems to be working in the film industry.

    Which reminds me of a question. What is the shortest time we can explore and length as well given current technology (not including the train wrecks in particle accelerators)?

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  12. Hi Steven,

    You asked: By "work in that direction" do you mean better experiments through better technology?

    That as well, yet what I’m mainly thinking of are first coming up with ways to have nature reveal itself better in respect to both the new and accepted theories. An example of this would be what J.S. Bell did for having entanglement established as a real consequence of QM without considering it merely some anomaly of the theory’s formalism, which many thought should be ignored as Bohr and company did and Einstein accused of “sleeping on their quantum pillows” in doing so. Of course a more currently relative example would be Bee’s Box problem which shows the paradox one faces with certain versions of DSR. So it’s not so much the technology yet more how we can make determinations about theory with what we already have. Here the primary instrument being the mind and the route to discovery physically based logic.

    For me the difference lies in what the scientist expects to be answered by science, with the first quote noted below what I would call the limitations placed on it by most currently and the second what only the few have ever striven for.

    “There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract physical description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.”

    -Neils Bohr- as quoted by Aage Petersen

    “Some physicists, among them myself, cannot believe that we must abandon, actually and forever, the idea of direct representation of physical reality in time and space; or that we must accept the view that events in nature are analogous to a game of chance. It is open to every man to choose the direction of his striving: and also every man may draw from Lessing’s fine saying, that the search for truth is more precious than its possession. “

    Albert Einstein -The Fundamentals of Theoretical Physics- in the journal [Science- May 24, 1940]



  13. Does anybody know how to get mathematical symbols to appear in a blog over at

  14. I can't do exponents, superscripts and subscripts, which is annoying, but I can do these:

    Αα Alpha Νν Nu
    Ββ Beta Ξξ Xi
    Γγ Gamma Οο Omicron
    Δδ Delta Ππ Pi
    Εε Epsilon Ρρ Rho
    Ζζ Zeta Σσς Sigma
    Ηη Eta Ττ Tau
    Θθ Theta Υυ Upsilon
    Ιι Iota Φφ Phi
    Κκ Kappa Χχ Chi
    Λλ Lambda Ψψ Psi
    Μμ Mu Ωω Omega

  15. Does anybody know how to get mathematical symbols to appear in a blog over at

    A webblog blog? Blog article? Blarticle (my call)? Most people call them blog posts, you know, the stuff people don't read before jumping to the replies.

    When I need to put equations in, I go to Wiki and save an equation to Images, then insert them into the post editor. I forget if it's in html mode or compose mode, but it's one or the other.

  16. Does anybody know how to get mathematical symbols to appear in a blog over at

    Try this.

    In wordpress it is allowed to use latex even in the comments section, however I do not know about this possibility in blogger.

  17. Hm.

    In case the next prize goes to the most stupid career path ending up in a permanent position having to work in uninteresting things at an uninteresting place, please remember me for nomination.

  18. Hi Christine,

    ”In case the next prize goes to the most stupid career path ending up in a permanent position having to work in uninteresting things at an uninteresting place, please remember me for nomination.”

    If they ever create such a prize it should be an award of a large sum as to have it form to be a rescue grant. So if I were ever eligible to nominate people you could count on mine. Now what should they call such a prize, perhaps ‘The Chrysalis Award’ , which is to give deserving scientific caterpillars the chance to metamorphosize into the intellectual butterflies whom they always aspired to be :-)



  19. Hi Phil,

    Thanks for the nice words. In fact, I am at an age that I no longer am certain of what I aspire to be, regardless of what I used to aspire to be in previous times. :) I guess that all that I aspire to be (or have) I already am or have it, actually: to have a reasonable health and a family that I love. These are the things that I think really matter. Happiness is also found in the "little" things nature gives us every day, like just looking at a beautiful flower in the fresh morning air.

    A curiosity about the universe will always follow me anyway, despite the certainty that we will never know what is really all about. At least, I have this feeling. So even though such a search can be very interesting and exciting, with so many ideas, findings, etc, at the end just to have a good life is all we could ask for, right? Like Spock in Star Trek would have said: just "live long and prosper"...


  20. Hi Christine,

    Happiness is also found in the "little" things nature gives us every day, like just looking at a beautiful flower in the fresh morning air.

    So true and yet this goes to further indicate that although you find yourself to be a caterpillar you have the interests of a butterfly, as caterpillars only find the leaves attractive for consumption, while the butterfly seeks out the flowers for their nectar to sustain them; so then the metaphor I find still to be appropriate. The nice thing for those who are curious about the world being what has living worthwhile is not solely dependent upon ones longevity or security, yet having life become a little more meaningful, which can only be satisfied with increased understanding. One thing I’ve become convinced of is that humanity in the greater sense will never become the butterfly it claims to aspire to be until it has its own metamorphosis with having all to find such understanding as necessary to be happy.

    ”This entire allegory, I said, you may now append, dear Glaucon, to the previous argument; the prison-house is the world of sight, the light of the fire is the sun, and you will not misapprehend me if you interpret the journey upwards to be the ascent of the soul into the intellectual world according to my poor belief, which, at your desire, I have expressed whether rightly or wrongly God knows. But, whether true or false, my opinion is that in the world of knowledge the idea of good appears last of all, and is seen only with an effort; and, when seen, is also inferred to be the universal author of all things beautiful and right, parent of light and of the lord of light in this visible world, and the immediate source of reason and truth in the intellectual; and that this is the power upon which he who would act rationally, either in public or private life must have his eye fixed.”

    -Plato-Allegory of The Cave, Book VII of the Republic



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  22. Can the award be posthumous? Probably not. If so though, I'd award it to University of Pisa Mathematics Professor Galileo Galilei. He took on authority and ... lost, but he started a new craze (Modern Science) that remains with us still.

    If only Copernicus had a larger set and fought the good fight while he was alive, Galileo would have been spared a lot of grief, and we might have lunar colonies by now! But, oh no. God forbid you should stand up to authority, Copernicus, you big sissy! What if Plato never taught, and wrote The Republic and left it in a desk drawer? But he didn't.

    Here's a nominee among the living: Sabine Hossenfelder. How cool would it be for Sabine Hossenfelder to win the first Sabine Hossenfelder prize? Pretty darn cool, I'd say.

    Also, are string theorists eligible? Or are you restricting yourselves to ONLY THOSE physicists who try to work out the world in terms of the 4 dimensions that we're sure exist?

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  24. Hi Steven,

    Galileo didn’t suffer the fate he did resultant of questioning authority, yet rather by ridiculing it. The fact is he poked fun at the intelligence of one of the most respected philosophers of his time, Cesare Cremonini, who had the patronage of Alfonso II d'Este (duke of Ferrara) by featuring him as the character Simplicio in the book that got him into all the trouble to begin with entitled ‘Dialogue Concerning The Two Chief World Systems’. In doing so Galileo fell the victim to his own arrogance, rather than any views he held. In truth Cremonini himself also came under the scrutiny of the inquisition for his Aristotelian view that the soul was mortal and yet since being considered a respected academic helped to protect him from persecution.

    So actually when you boil it all down Galileo suffered the fate of being a insensitive smart ass, which still continues to be a consequence for the same of today, not only in the realms of the ivory towers yet in society more generally; unless you happen to be a comedian or journalist of course:-) This is not meant to either deny his genius or the importance of his discoveries, just to remind that being a scientist doesn’t give one license for being an asshole. For my money give me the likes of Michael Faraday if you are looking for a worthy candidate from the past, as he being a person of little means and a meagre formal education didn’t have the world denied his talents for discovery.

    “The important thing is to know how to take all things quietly.”

    -Michael Faraday



  25. I love Faraday, and yeah I know Galileo was more than a bit of a prick. So was Newton in his later years, as you've pointed out re Stephen Grey.

    They can't all be Einstein.


  26. Hi Steven,

    I’m happy to hear you also to be an admirer of the late Michael Faraday, as people like him for me present as being the most remarkable of all. With the realization of the success of those like him it has always given me reason that more credence should given to the power of potential when it relates to outcome and that if there be a prize or not that what stands as being most important is ones need to know and the strength of conviction one has in pursuing having it satisfied. As for Einstein when compared to Faraday he was no saint, yet he was certainly a person having empathy for his fellow human beings and held no malice for others, or would resort to their ridicule to have his views heard.

    Actually I’m coming around to thinking more and more like Turok, that the place we should be examining expanding our efforts in promoting scientific endeavour should be focused more in the third world nations; as not only would it widen the pool of potential resource, yet have the chance that such focus could have more people to realize that an interest in science can give them a greater level of control in respect to their outcome in life, instead of their ignorance of it having it chosen for them.

    “I am busy just now again on electro-magnetism, and think I have got hold of a good thing, but can't say. It may be a weed instead of a fish that, after all my labour, I may at last pull up.”

    -Michael Faraday



  27. Carl Brannen nearly has a PhD, but not quite. Apparently he studied for this at University of California, Irvine. To me this is just a technicality, but the FQXi judges might see things differently.

    Brannen has published a work in a mainstream journal (Foundations of Physics).

    Brannen is verbally thrashed at regular intervals for posting his ideas on The Reference Frame. Brannen still goes back. This makes me wonder if Brannen has a faulty amygdala, in which case Brannen would be ultra-courageous by nature.

    Perhaps someone with a bit more experience in physics should read Brannen's paper and then nominate him if they see fit.

    Just an idea.

  28. Darwin and Copernicus were sophisticated amateurs who financed there own work. They both made lasting contributions. Their work involved far-reaching changes in the fundamentals of their particular science. Years ago, I completed all the course work for a PhD in psychological statistics. Relying on my own finances, I have worked for the last 33 years on two fundamental theories in physics. It has taken me that long--working in isolation--to develop these theories. As far as I am concerned, I think I am way ahead of any existing "certified" theorists who are supposed to know how make useful contributions in theoretical physics. I now believe that I will be lucky if my work gets discovered posthumously. But just in case I have got this wrong: Here is one of my theories that is out there in the public domain-- .


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