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.
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.