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Former Hawthorne Man Wins 2017 Breakthrough Prize In Physics

Joseph Polchinski, a former Hawthorne resident, has received the 2017 Breakthrough Prize for his work in quantum physics. He is shown with his wife, Dorothy, and their two sons, Daniel and Steven, at the awards ceremony in California in December.
Joseph Polchinski, a former Hawthorne resident, has received the 2017 Breakthrough Prize for his work in quantum physics. He is shown with his wife, Dorothy, and their two sons, Daniel and Steven, at the awards ceremony in California in December. Photo Credit: Provided/National Geographic

MOUNT PLEASANT, N.Y. -- Former Hawthorne resident Joseph Polchinski’s story isn’t just one of “local boy makes good,” it’s more like “local boy makes major scientific breakthrough.”

Polchinski, a theoretical physicist and string theorist, is one of three people who won the 2017 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics for their “insights into the deepest questions of the universe.”

The University of California, Santa Barbara, professor is sharing the $3 million prize with Harvard University's Andrew Strominger and Cumrun Vafa. A total of $25 million was awarded at the Dec. 4, 2016, event.

The author of the textbook “String Theory," was honored for making “transformative advances in quantum field theory, string theory, and quantum gravity.”

Regrettably, this reporter is unable to explain any of the above theories, but does know one good physics joke: "A neutron walks into a bar and asks: 'How much for a beer?' The bartender replies: “For you, no charge.'")

Even Polchinski, who Daily Voice interviewed Thursday, had to chuckle at that golden oldie.

Polchinski lived in Hawthorne until he was about five. His family moved around Westchester a few times before departing when he was 10 for Arizona, and later California, where he now lives.

He comes from a big family and remembers playing with gaggles of cousins at the family home on Amsterdam Avenue.

Polchinski said he never resented being pegged as the “smart” one in the crowd.

“I guess I liked it because it made me feel special,” he said.

Polchinski’s love of science was sparked at an early age by the “How and Why Wonder Books." The series, published in the 1960s and ‘70s, was designed to teach science and history to children.

“I always got so excited when a new one came out,” Polchinski said.

Did the budding scientist ever, ahem, use his toy chemistry set to blow things up back then, just for fun?

“Nope,” said Polchinski. “I’m a theorist.”

His roots go way back in Westchester, said Michael K. Ciaramella, president of Polchinski Memorials, Inc., a maker of monuments, and mausoleums.

The company was founded in 1883 by Joseph Polchinski Sr., the physicist’s great-grandfather.

Ciaramella’s father worked for the Polchinski family as a designer and draftsman, eventually becoming the company’s director.

The younger Ciaramella remembers Polchinski as a bright and curious child.

Polchinski and other Breakthrough Prize winners were honored in San Francisco at ceremonies hosted by Academy Award-winning actor Morgan Freeman and broadcast on the National Geographic channel.

The champagne was flowing as the red carpet was rolled out for the celeb scientists at Moffett Field in Silicon Valley.

Singer Alicia Keys performed and notables such as Jeremy Irons and Vin Diesel handed out the awards for the often inscrutable insights into physics, life sciences, and mathematics.

Facebook mogul and White Plains native Mark Zuckerberg, and fellow Breakthrough Prize founders Sergey Brin, Anne Wojcicki, Yuri and Julia Milner, and Priscilla Chan, announced the recipients.

Polchinski, who has won numerous other honors and awards for his work, admits to being dazzled by all the glamor and glitz.

“I really didn’t know what to make of it,” he said.

His sons, Daniel and Steven, however, seemed to be the most impressed by sports figures at the event and were thrilled to score an autograph from former Yankee, Alex Rodriguez, aka A-Rod.

Celebritism is definitely “a different world,” the scientist said.

And, as one who ponders the "deepest questions of the universe," Polchinski ought to know.

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