Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Yet another year in which you haven’t won a Nobel Prize!

“Do you hope to win a Nobel Prize?” asked an elderly man who had come to shake my hand after the lecture. I laughed, but he was serious. Maybe I had been a little too successful explaining how important quantum gravity is.

No, I don’t hope to win a Nobel Prize. If that’s what I’d been after, I certainly would have chosen a different field. Condensed matter physics, say, or quantum things. At least cosmology. But certainly not quantum gravity.
Nobel Prize medal for physics and chemistry. It shows nature in the form of a goddess emerging from the clouds. The veil which covers her face is held up by the Genius of Science. Srsly, see Nobelprize.org.

But the Nobel Prize is important for science. It’s important not because it singles out a few winners but because in science it’s the one annual event that catches everybody’s attention. On which other day does physics make headlines?

In recent years I heard increasingly louder calls that the Prize-criteria should be amended so that more than three people can win. I am not in favor of that. It doesn’t make sense anyway to hand out exactly one Prize each year regardless of how much progress was made. There is always a long list of people who deserved a Nobel but never got one. Like Vera Rubin, who died last year and who by every reasonable measure should have gotten one. Shame on you, Nobel Committee.

I am particularly opposed to the idea that the Nobel Prize should be awarded to collaborations with members sometimes in the hundreds or even thousands. While the three-people-cutoff is arguably arbitrary, I am not in favor of showering collaboration members with fractional prizes. Things don’t get going because a thousand scientists spontaneously decide to make an experiment. It’s always but a few people who are responsible to make things happen. Those are the ones which the Nobel committee should identify.

So, I am all in favor of the Nobel Prize and like it the way it is. But (leaving aside that many institutions seem to believe Nobel Prize winners lay golden eggs) the Prize has little relevance in research. I definitely know a few people who hope to win it and some even deserve it. But I yet have to meet anyone who deliberately chose their research with that goal in mind.

The Nobel Prize is by construction meant to honor living scientists. This makes sense because otherwise we’d have a backlog of thousands of deceased scientific luminaries and nobody would be interested watching the announcement. But in some research areas we don’t expect to see payoffs in our lifetime. Quantum gravity is one of them.

Personally, I feel less inspired by Nobel Prize winners than by long-dead geniuses like Da Vinci, Leibnitz, or Goethe – masterminds whose intellectual curiosity spanned disciplines. They were ahead of their time and produced writings that not rarely were vague, hard to follow, and sometimes outright wrong. None of them would have won a Nobel Prize had the Prize existed at the time. But their insights laid the basis for centuries of scientific progress.

And so, while we honor those who succeed in the present, let’s not forget that somewhere among us, unrecognized, are the seeds that will grow to next centuries’ discoveries.

Today, as the 2017 Nobel prize is awarded, I want to remind those of you who work in obscure research areas, produce unpopular artworks, or face ridicule for untimely writing, that history will be your final judge, not your contemporaries.

Then again maybe I should just work on those song-lyrics a little harder ;)

41 comments:

Matthew Rapaport said...

Since you won't get a Nobel, you may need the song writing to fund your research! Best of luck with both.

Uncle Al said...

"Genius of Science" Luck, panic, splattered sweat; daydreaming, a long hot shower, being semi-comatose at sunrise; depths of boredom. An undergrad says something off-center; another discipline’s standard operating procedure. Insoluble organic pigments become masterbatch dyes using nickel superalloy metallurgy. So it can't be done, so what?

http://www.southampton.ac.uk/~jps7/Lecture%20notes/TRIZ%2040%20Principles.pdf
...Do it the other way.

Charles Pedersen fumbled a large volume reaction, decanted the muck, wondered about a small tuft of wiry white crystals; 1987 Nobel Prize/Chemistry.

Unknown said...

"But I yet have to meet anyone who deliberately chose their research with that goal in mind. "

I have, for certain. Ahmed Zewail. When asked by me why he chose to spend lots
of time measuring, in the femtosecond time domain, numbers that were already known
from frequency domain, he admitted that it was fun, exciting, and got lots of interest from prize committees. And he was not above making actually false claims, especially
claiming "first" vibrational quantum beats in "large" molecules (what's "large"?) when in fact his were rotational (if he had gone to higher energy, which he did too late,
he would in fact have beat me).

Peter said...

Good article. There are many ways to criticize the Nobel. But I agree, it does more good than causing any issues on inequities. (We are talking about the science prizes here, it's a somewhat different discussion if you talk about the peace or literature prize. And then there is the pseudo-Nobel in economics...)

BTW: How can I get "elevated" to be able to comment on your FB posts? Right now there is no "comment window" for me, as for most followers, I suppose. Seems to be a select small group of your more privileged followers? (I do promise to "behave," i.e. to be short, relevant, occasional, if you chose to elevate me to the commenting class...)

FunnyBunny said...

Don't agree with the limitation to three.What if Drever hadn't passed away this year? Barish was critical to saving this project. Drever and Vogt were at war at Caltech, even leading to Vogt having Drever locked out of his own office. Barish enabled the project due to superior management skills (he joined once the SSC was killed as he is a particle physicist).

Unknown said...

The prize isn't actually that much money these days.

Ted said...

Re: lyricists - Remember Bob Dylan vs. the Nobel Prize?

Unknown said...

The falling real and relative value of the Nobel's monetary payoff has also changed it. It used to have a win-the-lottery aspect in terms of financially transforming winners' lives. Nowadays, an academic in California who bought his or her house back in the 1990s will find the prize bounty more like a sizable bump to the retirement portfolio than a life-changer; two of last year's winners cleared $250K each, which is certainly nothing to sneeze at but is no more than a few years' salary for them at best. Moreover, the winners nowadays tend to be pretty prominent academics who are already successful. The Doug Prashers of the world, who are both deserving and could use the money, seem not to get chosen.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Peter,

I don't know what you mean. If you can see a fb post, it means it's public and you should also be able to comment on it.

Arunan said...

I probably know what Peter means Sabine. May be your friends list has gone beyond some number (5000?) and anyone asking to be a friend becomes a 'Follower' and not a 'Friend'. I have seen some posts I cannot comment on!

Phillip Helbig said...

"I am not in favor of that. It doesn’t make sense anyway to hand out exactly one Prize each year regardless of how much progress was made. There is always a long list of people who deserved a Nobel but never got one. Like Vera Rubin, who died last year and who by every reasonable measure should have gotten one. Shame on you, Nobel Committee.

I am particularly opposed to the idea that the Nobel Prize should be awarded to collaborations with members sometimes in the hundreds or even thousands. While the three-people-cutoff is arguably arbitrary, I am not in favor of showering collaboration members with fractional prizes. Things don’t get going because a thousand scientists spontaneously decide to make an experiment. It’s always but a few people who are responsible to make things happen. Those are the ones which the Nobel committee should identify."


I agree with your analysis of why it shouldn't be given to groups. Every year I post similar comments on various blogs.

However, Vera Rubin? I think the reason she was not awarded the prize (no, nothing to do with misogyny in the committee, as some have claimed) is that while her discovery is interesting, it is still not clear what is behind it. Dark matter? Maybe, but until there is some other evidence for it, this might have been the reason for not awarding the Nobel Prize to her.

Also, whenever one claims that so and so should have received the Prize by now, one has to point out at least one person who did receive it but was less deserving.

Satyen said...

Those who work for Nobel prize, never get it. Those who get Nobel, usually unable to enjoy it because they are so devoted in research.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Phillip,

I vaguely seem to recall we've had this discussion about Vera Rubin before. I don't see how it matters that we don't yet know how to explain the observations. The observations are there and they're not going to go away. We also don't know what dark energy is, but a Nobel Prize was handed out for that.

As to what Nobel Prize to dump instead, to me personally the more applied things always seem pretty random. Like the blue LED or CCDs. It's not that I think these are unimportant, certainly not. The here and now also matters, arguably. But compared to discovering that we're missing a big piece in our understanding of gravity and/or matter it doesn't score very highly.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Arunan, Peter,

I still don't know what you mean. First, I haven't maxxed the fb friend count, so still accepting. Though, if you don't know me personally I'd appreciate if you don't befriend me. Second, people who follow me can of course comment on my public posts and frequently do so. I don't even know how to publicly post and not also allow everyone to comment. If I don't post publicly you won't be able to comment, but you also shouldn't see the post in the first place.

DaveC said...

Hi Bee,

I think the Nobel Prize remains psychologically significant to many of us, at least in my field. Even if we don't specifically aim for it (and actually some of us freely admit that we do!), the remote possibility is a more satisfying and realistic goal than most. What else do we desire more as individuals than our peers' respect? From this point of view awarding it to big teams completely debases it, and I for one hate the idea.

Giulio Prisco said...

I believe the Nobel in Physics is given for experimental validation of physical theories, not for purely theoretical developments. If a Nobel was awarded for gravitational wave theory, Einstein would have received it in the 1920s!

However, if you could award a Nobel Prize for quantum gravity research, whom would you give it to?

Phillip Helbig said...

The observations are there and they're not going to go away. We also don't know what dark energy is, but a Nobel Prize was handed out for that."

Did she discover dark matter, or MOND? The situation is too unclear. In contrast, what puzzles some people about "dark energy" is that it is too clear: 1920s cosmology is still the best fit.

While dark matter is interesting in some respect, the mystery is overblown. Why should we be surprised to discover a form of matter we didn't know about before? This has happened before. The cosmological constant is in another league entirely: it's not just a different form of matter.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Phillip,

The 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics was not awarded for the discovery of dark energy, it was awarded for the discovery that the universe is accelerating. On the same rationale, Rubin should have gotten the Prize for the discovery that galactic rotation curves flatten. That we don't know yet whether it's particle dark matter or a modification of gravity that merely approximately behaves that way is entirely irrelevant for her discovery.

I also disagree that the cosmological constant somehow more interesting. For all we know it's just that: a constant. It's perfectly compatible with general relativity, is a pretty old story, and it doesn't tell us anything new about the fundamental laws of nature. Dark matter (particle or apparent) on the other hand will require something actually new, either an amendment of GR or of the Standard Model.

Be that as it may, she is dead, so rather futile to argue about it I'm afraid.

Phillip Helbig said...

"The 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics was not awarded for the discovery of dark energy, it was awarded for the discovery that the universe is accelerating."

Even granted that that's the case, what is the big deal? It's either accelerating or decelerating, except in special cases. :-)

How many papers have been written about the cosmological-constant problem? This shows that many people are puzzled over the magnitude of the cosmological constant. Another particle, on the other hand, is comparable to the discovery of neutrinos. Yes, physics beyond the standard model, and interesting. I am one who wasn't surprised by the fact that the cosmological constant is non-zero, but most people didn't expect it.

Somehow I doubt that the Prize would have been awarded but the acceleration couldn't be explained by the cosmological constant.

Phillip Helbig said...

Just to be clear, had Rubin received the Prize (perhaps jointly with Ford), then I wouldn't have been surprised, I wouldn't have said that she doesn't deserve it, etc. However, some people (not you) make the claim that she is the only (until recently) living person who deserved the physics prize but didn't get it (and some even claim that this proves the existence of misogyny in the Academy).

Several people have received the Prize more than once. Einstein once, for the photoelectric effect. One could argue that he had at least half a dozen contributions which, individually, were worthy of the Prize. (On the other hand, it was so certain that he would eventually get it that it was mentioned in his divorce settlement before it was awarded!)

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Phillip,

Sorry you lost me. You seem to be saying that no Nobel Prize should have been awarded for the accelerated expansion. If that was so, it would indeed make much more sense that none was given for galactic rotation curves, but that's not the branch of the wave-function we live in.

And are you seriously arguing that the value of the CC is important because so many people write papers about it?

MSS said...

Was Einstein's Nobel for experimental or theoretical work? My memory, and a quick check, shows it was for his (1905?) work on the photoelectric effect. Also I recall Feymann et al another yr, etc.

JeanTate said...

If Vera Rubin, why not Fritz Zwicky? Not only did he coin the term decades before Rubin, he published robust obserational support for the idea, concerning concentrations of DM far, far more massive than found in wimpy spiral galaxies.

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

Because he died more than 40 years ago, that's why.

JeanTate said...

Sure, but why wasn't his discovery/work considered worthy of a Nobel before he died? Sure, a lot of the work/findings corroborating his results weren't made until after he died - just like Einstein couldn't have got a Nobel for even the Hulse-Taylor findings, much less LIGOs - but much the same can be said of Rubin/Ford's work, especially re possible non-particle DM solutions.

But yeah, Rubin, Zwicky, and hundreds of other worthy others who didn't get a well deserved Nobel are dead. So this is somewhat moot. Maybe not ... Kent Ford is still alive ... :)

antimatter.ie said...

V nice article. It strikes me that, for all its faults, the Nobel prize is one of the very few PR successes of science. It has captured the public imagination in ways that little else associated with science does.
two other points;
(i) for scientists themselves, it would be more useful to know the nominees (and not 50 years afterwards)
(ii) while many deserving cases were not awarded, there are very few cases of the opposite, i.e., where a Nobel was awarded that is now considered in inappropriate (at least in physics)!

Phillip Helbig said...

"You seem to be saying that no Nobel Prize should have been awarded for the accelerated expansion."

This is not my opinion, but rather speculation about the motivations of the Committee. Would the prize have been awarded if there was not a clear explanation for the effect?

"And are you seriously arguing that the value of the CC is important because so many people write papers about it?"

Again, not my opinion, but speculation that the Committee might think that a prize in connection with the CC might be worth awarding.

Phillip Helbig said...

As for "why was this astronomer not awarded the prize?", I think it took a while until astronomy became considered a branch of physics. One can think of many astronomers and cosmologists who didn't get the prize (for astronomy or cosmology) but whose work in this field was worthy of it: Einstein, de Sitter, Friedmann, Lemaitre, Eddington, Tolman, Hubble, Slipher.

Helen said...

"Things don’t get going because a thousand scientists spontaneously decide to make an experiment. It’s always but a few people who are responsible to make things happen."

Things get going because a thousand scientists work on them.

I'm not in favour of giving the prize to collaborations, but that description was off from what is happening in reality. It might be true for a tabletop experiment, and it can often be fair to people who devoted years to get a medium-sized project off the ground, but it does not reflect the situation in large experiments.

Jim said...

Vera Rubin, together with Kent Ford made pretty easy observations after getting access to the best telescopes. They weren't original observations, and they weren't intellectually deep - they got to check rotation speeds of galaxies, wow, that's kinda retard level science compared to all the particle physics discoveries and theoretical physics going on at the time. It's like people forgo all the normal judgements in scientific discovery when a female is involved, Jocelyn Bell Burnell basically was a dumb obedient observer of a blit pattern, Rosalind Franklin was a posh 3rd degree chemist who, for some reason, obtained the best dna samples and held back scientific progress by months because she was irrational and unwilling to share them, (it took a few seconds for a competent man to see a photograph and deduce the helix structure, in fact it is common knowledge that Franklin and Dorothy Hodgkin had a meeting on the (obvious) evidence and ended up dismissing it). Also, "Madame" Curie just stirred a "soup", that her much more able husband had developed a sophisticated detector for.

Women are mostly shit at science, technology and math, it's historical fact, the few that genuinely are good are to be celebrated, Noether is one.

bud rap said...

Sabine,

Do you think the Nobel committee was unaware of the time lagged noise issue (http://www.nbi.ku.dk/gravitational-waves/gravitational-waves.html) you cited back in July or simply decided to ignore it? Thanks,

Bud

Sabine Hossenfelder said...

bud,

more likely, they ignored it. (as, apparently, did the collaboration.) if I hadn't been drowned in work for the last few months, I'd have been more behind this. sorry for not following up.

Koenraad Van Spaendonck said...

@Jim

Thank you for sharing these amazing insights.

Best, Koenraad

Patrice Ayme' said...

By giving the Prize to living scientists only, and leaving things at that, Nobel.Org deforms history. They know it, so they mentioned one dead scientist when they attributed the Prize for the "Higgs". A rare event.(The probable reason being that the Sakurai Prize had been given to 6 scientists, earlier, for the same "Higgs". And even that didn't cover all the discoverers, according to another famous Nobel Laureate!)

However, Einstein is long dead, but Nobel.Org just mentioned him for gravitational waves.

The Nobel Committee insisted, when giving the Prize to three particular individuals for gravitational waves that the idea of gravitational wave came from Einstein, something which is not really correct, as Henri Poincaré predicted "onde gravifique". And the prediction is (in part) elementary physics.

(Let's mention in passing that the Nobel Committee had deliberately NOT given the Physics Prize to Einstein for "Relativity", as it was viewed that the by then dead Henri Poincaré deserved it; Einstein got the Prize for the photoelectric effect and other contributions.)
I wrote a whole essay. complete with extensive quotes of Henri Poincaré on this. (Science 2.0 also mentioned it)

In general, each time a discovery is announced the Nobel Committee and other organization attributing prizes, should, report as a matter of basic ethics, in great detail upon the history of a subject, going way back in history if need be.

Scientists should teach truth, not personality cult. I adore Einstein, but he would have been the first to dislike a personality cult. Teaching the history of a subject doesn't just teach attributions, but often the logic of discovery. And in particular, how discoveries are made, not not just by particular individuals, but an entire culture, or civilization.

Patrice Ayme' said...

Dear Professor Hossenfelder:
You enabled an outrageously sexist comment above by "Jim" who claimed that
"Women are mostly shit at science, technology and math, it's historical fact..."

This is incorrect (in more ways than one). First there were other great women mathematicians than Noether (and they were not daughters of prestigious mathematicians, as Emmy was). Few women were given the opportunity for science. However, Emilie du Chatelet was one the greatest physicists (and philosophers!) of history. Not only she did discover in the mid-eighteenth century infrared radiation, but she established the concept of kinetic energy as 1/2 mv^2, through theory and experiments. (Newton, whom she translated in French, had confused energy and momentum.)

In the last few years, three women discovered the most efficient (by far) gene editing method, CRISPR/Cas9. Two in Berkeley (including Jennifer Dudna) and Emmanuelle Charpentier (a French professor presently at Planck Institute in Berlin). They will, no doubt, get the Nobel Prize. CRISPR/Cas9 will revolutionize all of medicine (human compatible pigs for grafting being one example).

Rob van Son (Not a physicist, just an amateur) said...

"Do you think the Nobel committee was unaware of the time lagged noise issue "

How does this noise issue fare now the fourth detection of a set of gravitational waves includes the Virgo detector? This third signal of the same event by a different, albeit less sensitive, detector should give much more information about these correlations. Or have these data not yet been processed?

JimV said...

My guess is, it was a slow year for major discoveries and the Nobel Committee thought gravity waves were a good bet (as do I, for what little that is worth). If there were another strong contender they probably would have waited to see how the GW discovery held up.

The LIGO team is said to be working on an official response. Their unofficial response at Dr. Sean Carroll's blog said that even if the unknown noise correlations are real (which at this point, due to the delay in the official response, I am guessing they are), there are still good reasons to think the main signal was due to GW.

johnduffieldblog said...

I've being doing a lot of reading of historical material recently, and I'm forming the view that Nobel prizes are bad for physics. That's because they tend to "cement in" theories and render them unchallengeable. If you take a look at recent scientific progress in fundamental physics, you may agree that in recent decades, there hasn't been much. And yet there's so much that people don't understand.

Phillip Helbig said...

"Also, "Madame" Curie just stirred a "soup", that her much more able husband had developed a sophisticated detector for."

I'm not an historian of science, and don't know enough to comment on the other examples, but your remarks about Curie are complete bullshit. Also, scare quotes where they don't belong is the last refuge of the incompetent. :-)

Arun said...

Discovery of CMB merited a Nobel.

Belfast188 said...

The Literature, Peace, and Economics prizes don't "build" on previous work, research, observations and discoveries, Physics does most certainly, and to a lesser extent, Medicine.
I'd rather stick pins in my eyes than sit on a Physics award. All you would hear would be Yes but... Certainly but... Of course but... With the occasional chirp that (s)he's dead so...
Literature, peace and economic awards are usually tripey, almost comical, political prizes nowadays.
That said, I am working on a novel, written entirely in Ogham, printed on birch bark and describing how a Newgrange labourer came within an inch of describing relatvity using only Euclidian geometry,
2019 is sewn up.