Is the Physics Nobel Prize Also Becoming a Joke?
The history of the physics prize is dotted with slights to those who deserved it and honors to those who didn't.
October 16, 2009 - 12:51 am
Practically everyone, both left and right, considers awarding President Obama the Nobel Peace Prize to be a joke. The late John Updike wrote that the Nobel Prize in Literature was a “prank.” But practically everyone still considers the Nobel Prizes in the hard sciences to be serious prizes, awarded to scientists with genuine accomplishments.
Is this really true? Or is the Nobel Prize in Physics, the hardest of the hard sciences, equally becoming a joke?
There was considerable controversy among physicists in 2008 when the Nobel Physics Prize was given for the discovery of the CKM matrix, a genuine Nobel quality achievement. Why then was there a controversy? Because “CKM” is an abbreviation for Cabibbo, Kobayashi, and Maskawa, whereas only Kobayashi and Maskawa were awarded the Prize. But the essential idea was due to Cabibbo in the 1950s, and all Kobayashi and Maskawa did was to expand on his idea in the 1970s. Kobayashi and Maskawa would have done nothing without Cabibbo’s absolutely essential first step.
Nuclear fission was the most important physics discovery made during the 1930s. Lise Meitner, an Austrian-German physicist forced to flee Germany when Hitler took over Austria, discovered nuclear fission. Meitner, a theoretical physicist, had been working in Berlin with the experimental chemist Otto Hahn on nuclear transformations of uranium. Hahn provided the data and Meitner analyzed the information. It was Meitner who first realized that Hahn’s data could only be interpreted as the splitting of the uranium nucleus.
But only Hahn received the Nobel Prize (in chemistry) for this great work. Meitner was completed ignored, even though she was responsible for the essential idea. Actually, as I indicated, for the discovery itself: uninterpreted or misinterpreted data is meaningless, and not a contribution to human knowledge.
My own opinion is that she was denied the Nobel Prize in Physics because of Swedish politics. She took refuge from the Nazis in Sweden, and had she been given the Nobel Prize for nuclear fission, the Swedish government would have considered her to be the greatest Swedish expert on nuclear fission. But a physicist on the Nobel Prize committee wanted the Swedish government to consider him, not Meitner, the leading Swedish expert on nuclear physics, so that he could obtain grant support from the government for his own work.
The American Paul Chu probably also missed a deserved Nobel Prize in Physics due to politics. In 1987, the Nobel Prize was given to J. Georg Bednorz and K. Alexander Müller for their discovery of superconductivity in ceramics. But it was Chu who forced the physics community to pay attention to the work of Bednorz and Müller — by confirming their work — and also for a crucial improvement of their work.
Chu discovered a new ceramic that went superconducting when placed in liquid nitrogen. Prior to Chu, superconductors, even the new Bednorz-Müller superconductor, only worked when placed in liquid helium, a very expensive and difficult-to-handle material. Liquid nitrogen is cheap and very common in industry. A high school student can show Chu’s ceramic is superconducting by placing it in a bowl of liquid nitrogen and putting a small magnet above it. The magnet will float above Chu’s superconductor, because superconductors are unique in excluding all magnetic field lines.
But Chu did not release the formula for his superconductor in the politically correct way. He submitted the paper containing his formula to the leading physics journal, as politics required. But he was fearful that his formula would leak out before publication, though the journal’s editors promised that they would keep his formula secret. Chu, knowing what that promise was worth, was clever: in his manuscript, he replaced the symbol for one chemical element, and after the paper was accepted, he corrected the “error” when he received the proofs for his paper.