Nobel Betting

I’m reminded that the 2009 Nobel Prize for Physics will be announced tomorrow, on Tuesday 6th October. A recent article in the Times Higher suggested that British physicists might be in line for glory (based on a study of citation statistics). However, the Table they produced showed that their predictions haven’t really got a good track record so it might be unwise to bet too much on the outcome! This year’s predictions are at the top, with previous years underneath; the only successful prediction is highlighted in blue:


The problem I think is that it’s difficult to win the Nobel Prize for theoretical work unless confirmed by a definitive experiment, so much as I admire (Lord) Martin Rees – and would love to see a Nobel Prize going to astrophysics generally – I think I’d have to mark him down as an outsider. It would be absurd to give the prize to string theory, of course, as that makes no contact whatsoever with experiment or observation.

I think it would be particularly great if Sir Michael Berry won a share of the physics prize, but we’ll have to wait and see. The other British runner in the paddock is Sir John Pendry. While it would be excellent for British science to have a Nobel prize, what I think is best about the whole show is that it is one of the rare occasions that puts a spotlight on basic science, so it’s good for all of us (even us non-runners).

I think the panel made a bit of a bizarre decision last year and I hope there won’t be another steward’s enquiry this year to distract us from the chance to celebrate the achievements of the winner(s).

I’d be interested to hear any thoughts on other candidates through the comments box. No doubt there’ll be some reactions after the announcement too!

26 Responses to “Nobel Betting”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Medicine was announced today (for telomeres, the “end caps” on chromosomes), and Physics is announced at 1045 BST tomorrow (ie Tuesday); the announcement can be viewed live at

    Michael Berry (he hates “Mike”) is one of my two favourite British physicists, but it’s not clear whether any single discovery of his would collar the prize. On the other hand, when you look at some of the winners…

    I don’t understand why the list of favourites changes radically from year to year, given that most of the predictions are wrong.

    Roger Penrose might deserve a Fields (I’m not qualified to say) but not a Nobel.


  2. I was going to write a similar blog post, you beat me to it 🙂

    I don’t know enough about the other branches of physics to make a decent bet on who will/should win – but I like the astronomy/cosmology predictions in the Times table. Vera Rubin just had an 80th birthday conference in her honour earlier this year, how cool to cap that off with a Nobel? I suppose it’s still too early for a Ghez/Genzel Nobel prize, although presumably they are obvious candidates in the future. And how long will we have to wait for the first exoplanet Nobel (Mayor & Queloz?)?

  3. telescoper Says:


    Astronomy hasn’t received that many Nobel prizes, in fact. Hulse & Taylor for the millisecond pulsar was really because of gravitational waves, and you have Penzias & Wilson and Smoot & Mather for the CMB. I’d be surprised, therefore, if Vera Rubin got one.

    I should also say that I’d be surprised if there was one for inflation (because we don’t really know whether that happened or not) so that would rule out Linde, Steinhardt and Guth (or permutations thereof).
    Likewise dark energy from supernovae.

    I would have liked to have seen Jim Peebles get a share of the Smoot-Mather one, actually but that’s probably controversial.

    I don’t have any real inkling of who they’re going to give it to this year so it should be interesting.


  4. Yes I agree, the only ones I can vaguely think of are really unlikely….

  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    It has gone to bright guys, but was that the Nobel Prize for Physics or Technology?

  6. telescoper Says:

    In case you missed it, the winners are:

    Charles K. Kao (Standard Telecommunication Laboratories, Harlow, UK, and Chinese University of Hong Kong) “for groundbreaking achievements concerning the transmission of light in fibers for optical communication”, who gets half, and the other half jointly to Willard S. Boyle and George E. Smith (Bell Laboratories, Murray Hill, NJ, USA) “for the invention of an imaging semiconductor circuit – the CCD sensor”.

    Congratulations to the winners but, as Anton points out, it looks a bit more like engineering than physics…

  7. Mr Physicist Says:

    Dont agree its engineering – this is still physics! It is ,of course, not fundamental physics, but I think it is still worthy and there is no reason why the odd prize cannot go to the more applied side of the subject. Lets face it, fibre optics have changed the face of telecoms around the globe and this will be good PR for science in general.

    Anyhow, the good news is that a share of the prixe went to the UK.. which was the start of this thread.

  8. telescoper Says:

    There’s an interesting question to which I really don’t know the answer: what’s the difference between applied physics and engineering?

  9. Anton Garrett Says:

    Can’t answer that Peter, but I suggest that Nobels should be awarded for smartness in overcoming or solving problems without heed to how useful those solutions are to society.

  10. Bryn Jones Says:

    A story/rumour/myth circulates in both astronomy and mathematics circles that Alfred Nobel chose not to create a prize for astronomy/mathematics(*) because his wife had an affair with an astronomer/mathematician(*).

    (*) Delete as appropriate.

    In any case, physics prizes have not generally gone to work in astronomy, although some astronomical work has been rewarded, most often when it lay on the intersection between astronomy and physics. We should remember that Edwin Hubble did not receive a Nobel prize.

    A Kavli Prize has now been created to honour achievements in astrophysics (other Kavli prizes are in nanoscience and neuroscience). This may fill the gap left by the Nobel awards. The first Kavli Prize in Astrophysics was awarded last year and was shared by Maarten Schmidt and Donald Lynden-Bell for their work on quasars. (It is interesting to note the Kavli money came from cheese. Yes, cheese.)

    Astronomers should be delighted with today’s Physics award to Willard Boyle and George Smith for the invention of the charge-coupled device. CCDs have revolutionised observational astronomy.

  11. telescoper Says:

    I think one of the criteria the Nobel Foundation has to consider is the benefit to mankind of the research. This is a more difficult case to make for fundamental physics than for applied physics like the one that won today. You have to remember that Einstein didn’t get the Nobel Prize for relativity, which was excluded from his citation, but primarily for the photoelectric effect.

    It is clearly the case that today’s winners have done things of enormous value both for furthering science and for everyday life. However, I stick to my guns and say that I don’t really regard them as physicists. Indeed, Kao, has a degree and a PhD in electrical engineering. I’ve got nothing against technology or engineering, of course, but I am a little disappointed that fundamental physics has been sidelined this time. I’m biased of course.

    Anyway, I’m not being churlish towards the chaps who won it and I’m sure they’ll deservedly enjoy their trip to Stockholm for the forthcoming celebrations in December. Well done!

  12. Anton Garrett Says:

    Er, what was Dirac’s first degree in…?

    I worry that the Kavli prize might be seen as an excuse not to award Nobels to deserving astros.


  13. telescoper Says:

    Good point!

  14. Anton Garrett Says:

    Chemistry this morning. Since it is arguable whether this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics was awarded for Physics, maybe the Chemistry Prize can be in view of the overlap between the subjects.

  15. telescoper Says:

    Aha. Wrong again! The Nobel Prize for Chemistry actually went to … Biology!

  16. Anton Garrett Says:

    And later this week the Nobel Peace Prize will probably once again go to some warmonger who has gained political power and is now referred to as a “Statesman.”

  17. telescoper Says:

    I can’t wait to find out which composer has won the Nobel Prize for Literature either.

  18. Bryn Jones Says:

    Or which author of fiction wins the Economics prize.

    (It would explain the current state of the world economy.)

  19. Anton Garrett Says:

    Bryn: BRILLIANT!

  20. telescoper Says:

    I’d forgotten about economics. I preferred it that way.

  21. – Britain’s Nobel winner condemns science funding reform

  22. telescoper Says:


    What does he know? He’s only a Nobel Laureate!


  23. Anton Garrett Says:

    And now the Nobel Peace prize has gone to, at least not a man with a proven track record of war this time, but not a man with a proven track record of peace. It’s a Nobel Prize for peaceful rhetoric.

    Which reminds me… perhaps we need a series of Prizes for the tripos of subjects that in mediaeval times made up the B.A. (Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric) and then the further four that made up the M.A. (Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, Astronomy).


    • telescoper Says:

      Quite. We were talking about this at dinner last night:
      “’s like giving the Nobel Prize for Physics to someone just for writing a good research proposal”

  24. “The problem I think is that it’s difficult to win the Nobel Prize for theoretical work unless confirmed by a definitive experiment, so much as I admire (Lord) Martin Rees – and would love to see a Nobel Prize going to astrophysics generally – I think I’d have to mark him down as an outsider.”

    Nobel specified “invention or discovery”, and also “benefit to mankind”. That is a little hard on astronomy. Of course, the foundation has some leeway in how the will is interpreted. No more than three is a fixed rule, but (rightly, in my view), no longer “during the previous year”. (This rule went out a hundred years or so ago.) There are only a handful of Nobel prizes in astronomy, most observational, most radio astronomy.

    Michael Berry: I think his book on Cosmology and Gravitation is one of the best introductions to the subject. I’ve only seen him once, at a Colston Symposium about 10 years ago. Seems like an entirely nice guy. (Interesting story: The invitation to the conference dinner said “dinner jacket” and I think none of the participants had one. I think some were beginning to panic. It’s not something you can just buy at a corner shop. Berry later explained that “dinner jacket” was just the default stuff the conference organizers write when they mean “black tie not required”, which brought a collective sigh of relief from the audience. I was happy when Berry himself showed up in jeans and knitted pullover.

    Exoplanet? Not worthy of a Nobel Prize, in my opinion.

    CCD? Worthy. And of HUGE benefit to astronomy (up there with the telescope, the photographic plate, the Schmidt camera, the computer).

    “There’s an interesting question to which I really don’t know the answer: what’s the difference between applied physics and engineering?” Here’s one for the Brits: What’s the difference between applied mathematics and theoretical physics?

    “A story/rumour/myth circulates in both astronomy and mathematics circles that Alfred Nobel chose not to create a prize for astronomy/mathematics(*) because his wife had an affair with an astronomer/mathematician(*).” Thoroughly debunked, IIRC.

    Note that the Crafoord Prize, as well as the Kavli prize, exists for work in astronomy. And it’s Swedish as well. (Note that Kavli is from Norway.)

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