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Russian tycoon kicks off physics prize with $27 million in awards

CNBC

Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner is funding multimillion-dollar prizes for fundamental physics.

Russian entrepreneur Yuri Milner inaugurated his new prize program for fundamental physics today with a big bang: awards of $3 million each to nine of the world's best-known theorists.

Among the honorees are MIT's Alan Guth and Stanford's Andrei Linde, who developed the theory of cosmic inflation that currently stands as the most widely accepted model for the expansion of the universe.

In a Stanford news release, Linde said he could hardly believe what he was hearing when a telephone caller told him about the prize. At first, he told the caller that he'd have to think about accepting the money.

"Then I realized that I was making the most stupid joke of my life, and said that I would of course accept it," he said. "It's a huge prize. It's unbelievable."

The newly minted Fundamental Physics Prize is now the world's richest academic award, eclipsing the $1.2 million Nobel Prize as well as the $1.7 million Templeton Prize for science and spirituality.

Milner, 50, is himself a trained physicist who began his business career as an banking specialist and built up his fortune through a string of Internet investments, including stakes in Facebook, Zynga and Groupon. This year, Forbes estimated his net worth at $1 billion.

The $3 million Fundamental Physics Prize is to be awarded annually by the nonprofit Milner Foundation to recognize "transformative advances in the field." The $3 million prize may also be given at any time outside the formal nomination process "in exceptional cases," according to today's announcement from the foundation.

"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," Milner said in the announcement.

Promising junior researchers will be eligible for a different $100,000 annual award known as the New Horizons in Physics Prize.

To kick off the program, nine $3 million prizes were awarded today, and the nine recipients were invited to help select future honorees. In addition to Guth and Linde, the recipients include four string theorists at the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton: Nima Arkani-Hamed, Juan Maldacena, Nathan Seiberg and Edward Witten. The three other honorees are Caltech's Alexei Kitaev, who focuses on quantum computing; Russian mathematician Maxim Kontsevich; and Indian string theorist Ashoke Sen.

Linde said he'd have to devote some serious study to his $3 million prize.

"For people who do not have a strong financial background, deciding what to do with this money is equally complicated as deciding what to do with the formation of the universe," he joked.

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Alan Boyle is NBCNews.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as NBCNews.com's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.