"It was quite a surprise and honor, as well as a thrill," said the institute's Edward Witten, one of the nine.
Milner, 50, a Facebook and Groupon backer whose worth was estimated at $1 billion last year by Forbes magazine, aims to recognize achievement in tackling the very most fundamental questions of physics - the sorts of theories that might not be proved with experiments until decades after they are proposed. He once studied physics himself, in Moscow, and later attended the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, though he left before graduating.
Milner personally picked the nine winners of the new award, called the Fundamental Physics Prize. They have spent their lives pondering such mysteries as the interactions between subatomic particles and the early history of the universe. Now, they may need to ponder hiring a financial adviser.
Several said they were still trying to digest the news and were not sure how they would use their newfound wealth. In an e-mail, Witten said he would probably donate some of it to charity and might use some of the funds to support J Street, a pro-Israel group that lobbies for peace in the Middle East.
His institute colleague Nima Arkani-Hamed, another one of the winners, sounded a bit stunned by his good fortune."It's so generous, and it's not the kind of scale of things that academics are used to dealing with," Arkani-Hamed said. "I need to think about it some more."
News of the prizes jolted the world of physics, which normally draws scant public notice (with the exception of last month's news of evidence for the elusive particle called the Higgs boson).
"Mostly, theoretical physics doesn't get this kind of attention," said Mark Trodden, a Penn physicist who knows many of the winners. "Certainly not fundamental physics like this. It's great to see."
Practitioners of theoretical physics freely acknowledge that understanding their work is a challenge for most mortals.
For example, Witten's website features a list of 11 articles on such daunting topics as space-time and "quark confinement." Helpfully, he has marked four with an asterisk, indicating that these are the "most accessible."
Yet, Arkani-Hamed gave a talk Tuesday in clear English, in a previously scheduled engagement at Penn, before a group from the American Association of Physics Teachers.
Striding about the stage in black shirt, shorts, and sandals, the scientist held the crowd in rapt attention as he described the difficulties of finding the Higgs boson. Physicists are confident that they were able to create such particles with an apparatus in Europe called the Large Hadron Collider, but the evidence of this success was indirect.
"These particles don't, unfortunately, come out wearing name tags," Arkani-Hamed said. "Almost instantaneously, they decay into ordinary particles."
The other two winners from the Princeton-based institute were Juan Maldacena and Nathan Seiberg. Former institute faculty Maxim Kontsevich and Ashoke Sen, now based in France and India, also were among the nine who received Milner's new prize.
The three other winners were Alan Guth, Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Alexei Kitaev, California Institute of Technology; and Andrei Linde, Stanford University.
While Milner selected this inaugural group, each of the nine has agreed to help pick future prize winners.
Witten said he had spoken to Milner just once and was unsure how the Russian tycoon became aware of his research.
"I have been active in physics for long enough that he may have read my papers as a student, though I don't really know," said Witten, who is a visiting professor at Penn for the coming academic year.
Milner studied physics at Moscow State University and came to Wharton in 1990. In an article that year in the Daily Pennsylvanian, he was described as the first Soviet citizen to attend Wharton who was not an emigré. Milner said then that he was able to attend Wharton because of the government reforms known as perestroika.
He has been a major investor in Internet and tech companies for years. Last year, he purchased a house in Los Altos Hills, in California, for $100 million, said to be the largest price paid for a single-family residence.
In the 1990 article, one of his Wharton professors, Aron Katsenelinboigen, described Milner with words that would prove prophetic:
"He could have a great future."
After this week, the world of theoretical physics would agree.
Contact Tom Avril at 215-854-2430
Inquirer staff writer Peter Mucha contributed to this article.