Pioneers of supergravity named winners of $3m Breakthrough Prize

7 Aug 2019

From left: Peter van Nieuwenhuizen, Sergio Ferrara and Daniel Z Freedman photographed in 2016. Image: CERN

One of the most lucrative prizes in science has been awarded to three physicists for their efforts in unlocking the power of supergravity.

Self-described as the ‘Oscars for Science’, the Breakthrough Prize is one of the most lucrative academic awards, with sponsors including Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg.

Now in its seventh year, the judges have named the winners of this year’s special Breakthrough Prize in fundamental physics – worth $3m – as Sergio Ferrara (CERN), Daniel Z Freedman (MIT and Stanford University) and Peter van Nieuwenhuizen (Stony Brook University).

The selection committee said that the trio have been honoured with the award for “the invention of supergravity, in which quantum variables are part of the description of the geometry of spacetime”.

The three physicists will officially be presented with the award at the 2020 Breakthrough Prize ceremony this November, which will be held at the famous NASA Hangar One site.

“The discovery of supergravity was the beginning of including quantum variables in describing the dynamics of spacetime. It is quite striking that Einstein’s equations admit the generalisation that we know as supergravity,” said Edward Witten, chair of the selection committee.

Meanwhile, Yuri Milner, one of the founders of the awards, said: “When we think of the great works of the human imagination, we often mean art, music and literature.

“But some of the most profound and beautiful creations are those of scientists. Supergravity has inspired physicists for decades and may contain deep truths about the nature of reality.”

Transformed theoretical physics

Ferrara, Freedman and van Nieuwenhuizen put forward their highly influential theory back in 1976, which successfully integrated the force of gravity into a particular kind of quantum field theory. This theory describes the fundamental particles and forces of nature in terms of fields embodying the laws of quantum mechanics.

In the four decades since it was first brought into the scientific world, supergravity has transformed theoretical physics, showing that supersymmetry was capable of accounting for all the phenomena we see in the real world, including gravity.

Among the important theories in which supergravity has been crucial include work by Cumrun Vafa and Andrew Strominger on quantum black holes, and later in the development by Juan Maldacena and others of ‘holographic’ theories of gravity.

The three scientists follow on from last year’s winner and Armagh native Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who was awarded the $3m for her major role in the discovery of pulsars.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic