As I think most of us in the field expected, professor Alexander Polyakov was selected from among the nominees as the winner of a
cool $3 million check Fundamental Physics Prize today.
Polyakov (who has spent the last two decades at Princeton University; the average wealth in that town has increased slightly in the last two years) is legendary for his wide-ranging contributions to theoretical physics, and he is certainly deserving of some fame outside the physics community. We owe him a great deal for our understanding of many aspects of quantum field theory (the mathematical technology used in the so-called Standard Model to describe the known elementary particles and forces, and also used widely in the physics of solids, in string theory, and elsewhere.) Much of his work, starting in the 1960s and 1970s, and continuing to the present, allowed quantum field theorists to study, understand and/or discover crucially important phenomena which cannot be explored using the famous but quite limited methods of “perturbation theory”, of which Feynman diagrams are an example. His name or initial appears on many objects and phenomena of importance in physics (‘t Hooft-Polyakov magnetic monopoles, Polyakov loops, BPST instantons, BPZ conformal blocks, and so on); you’ll find his name in the title of over 500 papers. He was perhaps the first person to show that if string theory and quantum field theory were somehow equivalent (an idea that goes back to the 1970s) then the string theory would have more spatial dimensions than the field theory does — a notion that was eventually explicitly realized in the AdS/CFT (or “gauge/string”) correspondence for which Juan Maldacena is famous. (The two next papers on that subject, appearing almost simultaneously following Maldacena’s 1997 work, were one by Witten and one by Gubser, Klebanov and… Polyakov.) He even did some work relevant for the current Higgs excitement, back in the 1960s. I cannot hope to convey how much I have learned about quantum field theory from his papers. In short: hearty congratulations to Professor Polyakov!
NOTE ADDED: I have noticed that a number of people are referring to Professor Polyakov as a “string theorist”. Perhaps this was inevitable, given the politics of the field and of the relevant blogs, but it greatly diminishes Polyakov’s work to reduce him to a single label. Yes, he did some of the most foundational work in string theory. But that’s not all, by any means; many of his most famous and lasting contributions lie outside of string theory, addressing basic issues in quantum field theories (magnetic monopoles, quantum tunneling [“instantons”], phase transitions) that are or could well be relevant in the Standard Model and/or in some of its possible extensions, such as Grand Unification. And even many of his contributions to string theory involved very fundamental issues in quantum field theory which have application outside of string theory as well (properties of scale-invariant [technically, “conformally” invariant] theories.) In short, his work is important to all people who use quantum field theory, including but not limited to string theorists, and he deserves the highest respect for his contributions to our understanding of some very subtle aspects of our world.
Just to drive the point home, I’d like to quote from Caltech Professor John Preskill’s post from last December, describing Polyakov; Preskill is about 15 years older than I am.
“I have never gotten to know Sasha Polyakov well, but like all theoretical physicists of my generation I hold him in awe. When I was a graduate student in the late 1970s, there were two great physicists who seemed to be leading most of the great advances in quantum field theory: Polyakov and Gerard ‘t Hooft…. What those two achieved in the 70s and early 80s is truly astonishing.
There are close parallels in the work of ‘t Hooft and Polyakov. They independently discovered that magnetic monopoles arise as solitons in spontaneously broken gauge theories. Both made fundamental contributions to our understanding of the role of quantum tunneling (“instantons“) in quantum field theory, and recognized that quark confinement hinges on the topology of gauge fields. Aside from all that, Polyakov launched the path integral approach to string theory in non-critical dimensions, and laid out the formalism of two-dimensional conformal field theory, a contribution just as seminal in condensed matter physics as in particle theory.”