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
Within hours after the journal received Chu’s manuscript, the incorrect formula began circulating among physicists. When the correct formula was published, physicists who had worked on the wrong formula, obtained dishonestly, were outraged. They were sufficiently influential to prevent Chu from getting a deserved Nobel Prize.
The 1974 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Anthony Hewish for discovering pulsars. Actually, his student, Jocelyn Bell, and not Hewish, discovered pulsars, albeit using an instrument Hewish designed and built.
The 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded to Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson for their 1965 discovery of cosmic background radiation. Actually, neither Penzias nor Wilson “discovered” the CBR. The radiation was first observed in the 1940s in molecular clouds. French radio astronomers in 1956 also observed the CBR, correctly noting its 3 degrees Kelvin temperature. These earlier observers did not “discover” the CBR, because a “discovery” is both an observation and the intellectual appreciation of the meaning of the observation.
Robert Dicke, not Penzias or Wilson, realized the meaning of the 1965 observation of Penzias and Wilson. Dicke, together with his students David Wilkinson and Bruce Partridge, had begun constructing an instrument capable of detecting the CBR, which had already been observed, just not discovered. When Dicke heard about the Pennzias and Wilson observation, he immediately realized what they had observed. Dicke, and not Penzias and Wilson, really “discovered” the CBR. Dicke never received a Nobel Prize.
In 1921, Albert Einstein was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of the formula for the photoelectric effect. Once again, the formula itself was of very little value. Its true significance lay in its implication: that light was made up of tiny particles, since called “photons.” Einstein himself knew this full well, but not the Nobel physics committee, which considered Einstein’s derivation of his formula to be nonsense.
They thought the same about Einstein’s more famous discovery, relativity theory. In fact, they forbade Einstein from talking about relativity in the formal December Nobel acceptance speech. So Einstein came to Sweden the following summer to accept the Prize, so he could give his acceptance speech on his theory of relativity.
In 1954, Max Born was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for a result that was actually disproved three years later, though many physicists are not even today aware of this refutation. Born had claimed that the most important concept in quantum mechanics, the wave function, was a measure of the probability that an event would occur, and that there was a fundamental randomness in nature. But quantum mechanics is really more deterministic than classical mechanics. Einstein was utterly correct when he said, “God does not play dice with the universe.” Hugh Everett proved Einstein correct in 1957, when he showed that the wave function is not a measure of a probability, but rather a measure of the density of universes identical to ours but parallel to ours in the overall reality called the “multiverse.”
Erwin Schrödinger, who discovered the equation that governs the wave function, actually pointed this out in 1926, but he was ignored. The prestige of the Nobel awarded to Born has been an important reason why the Everett-Schrödinger true and correct theory of the wave function has not been generally accepted. The Nobel Prize has held up the advance of physics.
So it is an open question whether the Nobel Prize in the hard sciences is as much of a joke as it is in peace and literature. Perhaps we should retire the Nobel Prize in all fields, or at least not take it seriously in any field.