I missed this, but it's started bubbling up on the PHENIX lists: The Dirac medals were awarded a few weeks ago, and somehow it seems that being interested in the quark gluon plasma is no longer a handicap:
Professors Maldacena, Polchinski and Vafa are being honored for their fundamental contributions to superstring theory. Their studies range from early work on orbifold compactifications, physics and mathematics of mirror symmetry, D-branes and black hole physics, as well as gauge theory-gravity correspondence. Their contributions in uncovering the strong-weak dualities between seemingly different string theories have enabled us to learn about regimes of quantum field theory which are not accessible to perturbative analysis. These profound achievements have helped us to address outstanding questions like confinement of quarks and QCD mass spectrum from a new perspective and have found applications in practical calculations in the fluid dynamics of quark gluon plasma.So quark gluon plasma is now a "practical application" of string theory. While I completely agree with it in principle, imagine telling this to your aunt when she asks what your research is good for. Ironically, I usually argue that "helping string theory" is a practical application of studying the QGP at RHIC -- but it's all a matter of perspective I suppose.
The dualities have also led string theorists to conjecture that the five different superstring theories in ten space-time dimensions are manifestations of one underlying theory, yet undiscovered, which has been named the M-theory.
In any case, a belated congrats to Maldacena, Polchinski, and Vafa. It's been pretty exciting to see all of this develop in the last decade.