Press Release

$3M Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics goes to supergravity investigators

By SpaceRef Editor
August 6, 2019
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The Selection Committee of the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics today announced a $3 million Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics shared between theorists Sergio Ferrara (CERN), Daniel Z. Freedman (Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University), and Peter van Nieuwenhuizen (Stony Brook University). The three are being honored for “the invention of supergravity, in which quantum variables are part of the description of the geometry of spacetime.”


The new laureates will be recognized at the 2020 Breakthrough Prize ceremony at NASAs Hangar 1 on Sunday, November 3, 2019, where the winners of the annual Fundamental Physics prize will also be honored, along with the winners of the Breakthrough Prizes in Life Sciences and Mathematics.


Edward Witten, the chair of the Selection Committee, said, The discovery of supergravity was the beginning of including quantum variables in describing the dynamics of spacetime. It is quite striking that Einsteins equations admit the generalization that we know as supergravity.


When we think of the great works of the human imagination, we often mean art, music and literature, said Yuri Milner, one of the founders of the Breakthrough Prize. 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.





Ferrara, Freedman and van Nieuwenhuizen are the architects of supergravity, a highly influential 1976 theory that successfully integrated the force of gravity into a particular kind of quantum field theory (a theory that describes the fundamental particles and forces of nature in terms of fields embodying the laws of quantum mechanics).


The 1960s and early 70s saw the construction of the Standard Model, a quantum field theory that still remains the most precisely verified theory in physics, and whose achievements include the prediction of the Higgs boson. However, it was clear that the Standard Model was not complete. In particular, it described only three of the forces of nature: it left out gravity, which was the domain of Einsteins theory of general relativity. It also retained some major puzzles, including masses of particles that were many orders of magnitude below their expected values, and the lack of any particle that could explain dark matter, the invisible substance that pervades the Universe.


Then in 1973, physicists developed a principle, supersymmetry, which extended the Standard Model to include a new family of particles. Supersymmetry postulated that each of the known particles had an unseen partner: the fermions (such as electrons and quarks, which make up matter) had bosons (force-carrying particles) as partners; while the bosons (such as photons of light) had corresponding fermions. Though the existence of these super-bosons and super-fermions is yet to be confirmed experimentally, supersymmetry is an attractive idea because of its explanatory power. It relates the characteristics of fermions and bosons as manifestations of an underlying symmetry —much as different shapes might represent a single object reflected in a mirror. And it offers solutions to some of those perplexing puzzles in the Standard Model, including a mechanism explaining the tiny particle masses, and a natural candidate for dark matter, which — like the hypothesized super-bosons — is massive but invisible. 


But for supersymmetry to describe the phenomena we do see around us — like apples falling to Earth — it would have to be extended to include gravity. This was the task that Ferrara, Freedman and van Nieuwenhuizen set their minds to. Beginning with discussions between Ferrara and Freedman at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris in 1975, continuing via collaboration with van Nieuwenhuizen at Stony Brook University, and culminating in a laborious series of calculations on a state-of-the-art computer, they succeeded in constructing a supersymmetric theory that included gravitinos — a super-fermion partner to the graviton, the gravity-carrying boson. This theory, supergravity, was not an alternative theory of gravity to general relativity, but a supersymmetric version of it: the algebra they used in the theory included variables representing part of the geometry of spacetime — geometry which in Einsteins theory constitutes gravity.


A Deeply Influential Theory


In the four decades since its development, supergravity has had a powerful influence on theoretical physics. It showed that supersymmetry was capable of accounting for all the phenomena we see in the real world, including gravity. It represented a completion of the current understanding of particle physics — a rigorous mathematical answer to the question, What theories of nature are compatible with the principles of both quantum mechanics and special relativity? And it provided a foundation for the attempt — still ongoing — to build a full theory of quantum gravity that describes space and time at a fundamental level.


In 1981, Edward Witten showed that the theory can be used to give a rather simple proof of what had been an extremely complicated theorem in general relativity. Soon after that, supergravity was integrated into string theory — which is actually equivalent to supergravity when describing low-energy interactions — and it was a crucial ingredient in the 1984 proof by Michael Green and John Schwarz that put superstring theory on a stable mathematical footing. Supergravity also played an important role in 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.


Ferrara works at CERN. He is an INFN associate and a member of the Bhaumik Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California, Los Angeles. He lives in Geneva with his wife Rosanna. 


Freedman is a visiting professor at Stanford University and lives in Palo Alto, California, with his wife Miriam. 


Van Nieuwenhuizen is a Distinguished Professor of Physics at Stony Brook University and lives in Stony Brook, New York, with his wife Marie de Crombrugghe.


Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics


A Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics can be awarded by the Selection Committee at any time, and in addition to the regular Breakthrough Prize awarded through the ordinary annual nomination process. Unlike the annual Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, the Special Prize is not limited to recent discoveries.


This is the fifth Special Prize awarded: previous winners are Stephen Hawking, seven CERN scientists whose leadership led to the discovery of the Higgs boson, the entire LIGO collaboration that detected gravitational waves, and, last year, Jocelyn Bell Burnell for her discovery of pulsars.


The Selection Committee for the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics includes: Nima Arkani-Hamed, Charles Bennett, Joceyln Bell Burnell, Lyn Evans, Michael B. Green, Alan Guth, Joseph Incandela, Charles Kane, Alexei Kitaev, Maxim Kontsevich, Andrei Linde, Arthur McDonald, Eugene Mele, Juan Maldacena, Lyman Page, Saul Perlmutter, Alexander Polyakov, Adam Riess, John H. Schwarz, Nathan Seiberg, Ashoke Sen, David Spergel, Andrew Strominger, Kip Thorne, Cumrun Vafa, Yifang Wang, Rainer Weiss and Edward Witten.


Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics


The Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics recognizes individuals who have made profound contributions to human knowledge. It is open to all physicists  theoretical, mathematical and experimental — working on the deepest mysteries of the Universe. The prize can be shared among any number of scientists.


2019 Special Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics


Sergio Ferrara



Daniel Z. Freedman

Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University


Peter van Nieuwenhuizen

Stony Brook University


For the invention of supergravity, in which quantum variables are part of the description of the geometry of spacetime.


Breakthrough Prize


For the seventh year and renown as the “Oscars of Science,” the Breakthrough Prize will recognize the worlds top scientists. Each prize is $3 million and presented in the fields of Life Sciences (up to four per year), Fundamental Physics (one per year) and Mathematics (one per year). In addition, up to three New Horizons in Physics and up to three New Horizons in Mathematics Prizes are given out to junior researchers each year. Laureates attend a live televised award ceremony designed to celebrate their achievements and inspire the next generation of scientists. As part of the ceremony schedule, they also engage in a program of lectures and discussions. 


The Breakthrough Prizes are sponsored by Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, Ma Huateng, Yuri and Julia Milner, and Anne Wojcicki. Selection Committees composed of previous Breakthrough Prize laureates in each field choose the winners.


Information on Breakthrough Prize is available at


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Janet Wootten


SpaceRef staff editor.