Fortunately, such alternative prizes do exist. Their status amongst physicists varies widely. And although none of them competes with the Nobel in physics in terms of status, one prize is generally considered the next best thing next to a Nobel: the Wolf Prize in Physics.
Jacob Bekenstein has been announced as the latest recipient of this prize. He will receive the award – a certificate and prize money to the sum of US$ 100,000 – in recognition of his groundbreaking work in formulating the thermodynamics of black holes. Bekenstein joins black hole theorists like his doctoral advisor John Wheeler, as well as Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking, all of them earlier recipients of this prize.
Why all these Wolf Prizes for black hole physics? Surely quantum gravity is a much wider subject that extends far beyond black holes!
True. However, black holes provide the perfect playground for quantum gravity researchers. Black holes are to quantum gravity what hydrogen atoms are to quantum mechanics: a model system that renders the unexplored new physics most visible. As long as we don't fully understand black holes, there is no hope of mastering quantum gravity.
Jacob Bekenstein was the first to apply thermodynamics to black holes. This led to the identification of the surface area of the black hole horizon with its entropy. This in turn triggered Hawking to come up with the concept of black-hole radiation, and also led to the formulation of the holographic principle by Susskind and 't Hooft. Black hole thermodynamics continuous to be an active area of research, and a lot of dust needs to settle before we can claim to understand black holes from a quantum perspective. Bekenstein's contribution, however, stands firm and forms the basis of current research such as entropic gravity.
A Wolf prize long due and well deserved!
Bekenstein will be presented with the award by Israel President Shimon Peres, at a special ceremony at the Knesset on May 13th.