The Nobel Prize Is Really Annoying

nobelOne of the chapters in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman is titled “Alfred Nobel’s Other Mistake.” The first being dynamite, of course, and the second being the Nobel Prize. When I first read it I was a little exasperated by Feynman’s kvetchy tone — sure, there must be a lot of nonsense associated with being named a Nobel Laureate, but it’s nevertheless a great honor, and more importantly the Prizes do a great service for science by highlighting truly good work.

These days, as I grow in wisdom and kvetchiness myself, I’m coming around to Feynman’s point of view. I still believe that on balance the Prizes are a very good thing, and generally they honor some of the very best work in physics. (Some of my best friends are winners!) But having written a book about the Higgs boson discovery, which is on everybody’s lips as a natural candidate (though not the only one!), all of the most annoying aspects of the process are immediately apparent.

The most annoying of all the annoying aspects is, of course, the rule in physics (and the other non-peace prizes, I think) that the prize can go to at most three people. This is utterly artificial, and completely at odds with the way science is actually done these days. In my book I spread credit for the Higgs mechanism among no fewer than seven people: Philip Anderson, Francois Englert, Robert Brout (who is now deceased), Peter Higgs, Gerald Guralnik, Carl Hagen, and Tom Kibble. In a sensible world they would share the credit, but in our world we have endless pointless debates (the betting money right now seems to be pointing toward Englert and Higgs, but who knows). As far as I can tell, the “no more than three winners” rule isn’t actually written down in Nobel’s will, it’s more of a tradition that has grown up over the years. It’s kind of like the government shutdown: we made up some rules, and are now suffering because of them.

The folks who should really be annoyed are, of course, the experimentalists. There’s a real chance that no Nobel will ever be given out for the Higgs discovery, since it was carried out by very large collaborations. If that turns out to be the case, I think it will be the best possible evidence that the system is broken. I definitely appreciate that you don’t want to water down the honor associated with the prizes by handing them out to too many people (the ranks of “Nobel Laureates” would in some sense swell by the thousands if the prize were given to the ATLAS and CMS collaborations, as they should be), but it’s more important to get things right than to stick to some bureaucratic rule.

The worst thing about the prizes is that people become obsessed with them — both the scientists who want to win, and the media who write about the winners. What really matters, or should matter, is finding something new and fundamental about how nature works, either through a theoretical idea or an experimental discovery. Prizes are just the recognition thereof, not the actual point of the exercise.

Of course, none of the theorists who proposed the Higgs mechanism nor the experimentalists who found the boson actually had “win the Nobel Prize” as a primary motivation. They wanted to do good science. But once the good science is done, it’s nice to be recognized for it. And if any subset of the above-mentioned folks are awarded the prize this year or next, it will be absolutely well-deserved — it’s epochal, history-making stuff we’re talking about here. The griping from the non-winners will be immediate and perfectly understandable, but we should endeavor to honor what was actually accomplished, not just who gets the gold medals.

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44 Responses to The Nobel Prize Is Really Annoying

  1. Pingback: 2013 Nobel goes to British & Belgian physicists… | Arrow of Time

  2. HI says:

    King Cynic,

    I too think that the discovery of neutrino oscillations deserve recognition. I speculate that the reason it hasn’t been awarded the Nobel Prize was because Yoji Totsuka who led the Super-Kamiokande project passed away in the summer of 2008 and they haven’t figured out what to do with it. (Is it a coincidence that the 2008 prize went to other Japanese-born particle physicists including Nambu, whose health/age could have been a concern?)

    They should change their policy and give the awards to teams like SNO and Super-Kamiokande for neutrino oscillations and ATLAS and CMS for the Higgs.

  3. Pingback: The Nobel Prize in Physics | This little light of mine

  4. Pingback: Englert and Higgs | Sean Carroll

  5. “The Nobel prize was intended to “go to” an idea, invention, development – not an individual.”

    Dude, the internet exists. Nobel’s will is available online, also in translation in a language you should be able to understand. It pretty clearly says that the prize is to go to an individual person. (For what it’s worth, I speak Swedish and have read the original. I will note that the English translation on the Nobel site says that his veins should be opened after his death, when arteries was intended. But the part about the prizes is correctly translated into English at the Nobel site.)

    What about Tim Berners-Lee for a literature prize? Think of all the people who can now have their thoughts known who previously couldn’t. Probably comparable to Gutenberg (but he is dead, so has no chance).

  6. Pingback: Obligatory post on the Nobel Prize | An Island in Theoryspace

  7. “A couple of months ago when Richard Easther was at UCSC, we had a conversation along these lines and decided it might be fun if FQXi gave out an annual prize for an *idea* that deserves to be celebrated. This might indirectly honor that idea’s originators, but the focus would be fairly different and we might even sponsor a mini symposium/celebration for the idea. (There would not be anyone to give a monetary prize to, by design).

    A couple of examples we came up with were : 1) Decoherence, 2) The standard model of cosmology.”

    I think it’s a bad idea. Any idea worthy of such recognition already has many symposia dedicated to it (the standard cosmological model (though I agree with Sean that it is somewhat vague as a concept), inflation, multiverses etc). The same goes for outstanding papers: they are already recognized. (Note also that while the Nobel Prize is the best known and hence most prestigious, there are several other prizes to be won.)

    What about a prize for the most overlooked good paper and/or the best overlooked paper? Recognition is mainly through citation, but even if a paper is known, it might not be (heavily) cited, for various reasons (check out any discussion of bibliometry on various blogs); worse, it might not even be known to everyone it should be, again for various reasons. (Full disclosure and hint: I have exactly one refereed-journal paper which has not been cited. 🙂 )

  8. “Thus the first type of prize would do away with the absurdity of relativity never being given a Nobel prize (due to antisemitism in Germany and Europe at the time and anti-Jewish physics of relativity, and thus Einstein being given prize for photoelectric effect and other contributions to physics.)”

    Do some research. This is not an open-and-shut case, but what you describe does not correspond to what happened. First, it is absurd to claim that antisemitism in Germany had something to do with a prize awarded in Sweden. Second, it is absurd to claim that antisemitism prevented Einstein from getting a prize for relativity, but the antisemites were so nice that they gave him a consolation prize for the photoelectric effect. The main reason was probably that Nobel specified a discovery or invention. Relativity is arguably neither. (OK, neither was the explanation of the photoelectric effect, but a) the effect itself was a discovery and b) the explanation was invented to explain it, whereas relativity was not invented to explain anything (though of course it does explain many things). The committee actually cited the discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect.) In fact, one could argue that Einstein’s was the first theoretical prize, and that there were no others until, a decade later, those for quantum theory were given (Planck’s prize was tied to a specific experiment, namely the black-body spectrum.)

    Also, as Pais points out, relativity (at least special relativity) was “in the air” while the explanation of the photoelectric effect was radical. Einstein himself said that this was the only time in his life when he was truly radical (and that is some statement, especially if one knows anything about his life, within or outside of science). No particle needed longer to become accepted than the photon. By the time the prize was awarded, he had already made, apart from relativity, more contributions to physics than most people, most physicists, even most Nobel laureates in physics, make in a lifetime, many of these in one year (1905). Thus, it would have been an insult not to mention his other contributions to physics.

  9. Pingback: The 2013 Nobel Prize in physics: the Higgs boson | Galileo's Pendulum

  10. Nemo says:

    I would have loved to see the prize go to Anderson, who of course did everything he could to *prevent* the Higgs being discovered. It would have been delightful to watch the old creep squirm.

  11. John C. Thorne says:

    @Phillip Helbig

    Dude. Looks like you are right. I based my comment off a discussion on this topic I had with a Nobel Laureate (who shall remain nameless and blameless in my misstatement)…funny how that works.

  12. John C. Thorne says:

    “What about Tim Berners-Lee for a literature prize?”

    Dude. No.

  13. Pingback: Physics Nobel to Englert and Higgs | Mostly physics

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  15. John Duffield says:

    I don’t think the Nobel prize should be awarded to collaborations or institutions. IMHO if anything, it should go back to one person gets the prize. It was Alfred Nobel’s bequest, and his will.

  16. Marcelo says:

    If inlation ever gets the Nobel who’s going to get it ?
    As every prize, the decision about the subject and about the people is quite subjective. This is particularly clear in the literature prize. There are great writers who never got the prize and some who will never get it. On the other hand, some writers that no one expected to see them as winners got it.
    As physics concerns, the fact that some people get the prize means that they are good scientists but not great physicists necessarily. There are some winners that personally I’ll never put in the same rank of Einstein, Bohr, Dirac, Feynman, Schrodinger, Pauli, etc.
    And like in the literature case, there are great phycisists who will never get the prize and some who never received it.
    The best prize one can get comes from Nature itself (and I don’t mean here the overrated journal here).

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