Nobel Predictions

I was quite interested to see, in this week’s Times Higher, a set of predictions of the winners of this years Nobel Prizes. I’ve taken the liberty of publishing the table here, although for reasons of taste I’ve removed the column pertaining to Economics.

Year Medicine Chemistry Physics
2010 D. L. Coleman, J. M. Friedman (leptin)
E. A. McCulloch, J. E. Till (stem cells)
and S. Yamanaka (iPS cells)
R. M. Steinman (dendritic cells)
P. O. Brown (DNA microarrays)
S. Kitagawa, O. M. Yaghi (metal-organic frameworks)
S. J. Lippard (metallointercalators)
C. L. Bennett, L. A. Page,
D. N. Spergel (WMAP)
T. W. Ebbesen (surface plasmon photonics)
S. Perlmutter, A. G. Riess, B. P. Schmidt (dark energy)
2009 E.H. Blackburn, C. W. Greider, J.W. Szostak (telomeres) (won in 2009)
J.E. Rothman, R. Schekman (vesicle transport)
S. Ogawa (fMRI)
M. Grätzel (solar cells)
J.K. Barton, B. Giese, G.B. Schuster (charge transfer in DNA)
B. List (organic asymmetric catalysis)
Y. Aharonov, M.V. Berry (Aharonov-Bohm effect and Berry phase)
J.I. Cirac, P. Zoller (quantum optics)
J.B. Pendry, S. Schultz, D.R. Smith (negative refraction)
2008 S. Akira, B.A. Beutler, J. Hoffmann (toll-like receptors)
V.R. Ambros, G. Ruvkun (miRNAs)
R. Collins, R. Peto (meta-analysis)
Roger Y. Tsien (green fluorescent protein)
C.M. Lieber (nanomaterials)
K. Matyjaszewski (ATRP)
A.K. Geim, K. Novoselov (graphene)
V.C. Rubin (dark matter)
R. Penrose, D. Schechtman (Penrose tilings, quasicrystals)
2007 F.H. Gage (neurogenesis)
R.J. Ellis, F.U. Hartl, A.L. Horwich (chaperones)
J. Massagué (TGF-beta)
S.J. Danishefsky (epothilones)
D. Seebach (synthetic organic methods)
B.M. Trost (organometallic and bio-organic chemistry)
S. Iijima (nanotubes)
A.B. McDonald (neutrino mass)
M.J. Rees (cosmology)
2006 Mario Capecchi, Martin J. Evans and Oliver Smithies (gene targeting) (won in 2007)
P. Chambon, R.M. Evans, E.V. Jensen (hormone receptors)
A.J. Jeffreys (DNA profiling)
G.R. Crabtree, S.L. Schreiber (small molecule chembio)
T.J. Marks (organometallic)
D.A. Evans, S.V. Ley (natural products)
Albert Fert and Peter Grünberg (GMR) (won in 2007)
A.H. Guth, A. Linde, P.J. Steinhardt (inflation)
E. Desurvire, M. Nakazawa, D.N. Payne (erbium-doped fibre amplifiers)
2002-05 M.J. Berridge (cell signalling)
A.G. Knudson, B. Vogelstein, R.A. Weinberg (tumour suppressor genes)
F.S. Collins, E.S. Lander, J.C. Venter (gene sequencing)
Robert H. Grubbs (metathesis method) (predicted and won in 2005)
A. Bax (NMR and proteins)
K.C. Nicolaou (total synthesis, taxol)
G.M. Whitesides, S. Shinkai, J.F. Stoddart (nano self-assembly)
M.B. Green, J.H. Schwarz, E. Witten (string theory)
Y. Tokura (condensed matter)
S. Nakamura (gallium nitride-based LEDs)

It’s quite interesting to see two sets of contenders from the field of cosmology, one from the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) and another from the two groups studying high-redshift supernovae whose studies have led to the inference that the universe is accelerating thus indicating the presence of dark energy. Although both these studies are immensely important, I’d actually be surprised if either is the winner of the physics prize. In the case of WMAP I think it’s probably a bit too soon after the 2006 award for COBE for the microwave background to collect another prize. In the case of the supernovae searches I think it’s still too early to say that we actually know what is going on with the apparent accelerated expansion.

You never know, though, and I’d personally be delighted if either of these groups found themselves invited to Stockholm this December.

Interested to see how these predictions were made I had a quick look at the link the Times Higher kindly provided for further explanation, at which point my heart sank. I should have realised that it would be the dreaded Thomson Reuters, purveyors of unreliable numerology to the unwary. They base their predictions on the kind of bibliometric flummery of which they are expert peddlers, but which is not at all similar to the way the Nobel Foundation does its selections. No wonder, then, that their track-record in predicting Nobel prizes is so utterly abysmal…


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11 Responses to “Nobel Predictions”

  1. So we’ll know pretty soon how accurate these predictions are.

    By the way, if anyone wants to suggest other potential physics laureates please feel free. I don’t think many would have guessed last year’s winner!

  2. “I think it’s still too early to say that we actually know what is going on with the apparent accelerated expansion”

    Does this mean that you don’t believe that the acceleration is real?

    Even if it is not real, the discovery (and Nobel specified “invention or discovery” (as well as at most 3 recipients, not posthumous etc)) very
    probably points at something quite interesting.

    I think Sjur Refsdal should have won for the gravitational lens effect. I know that he was nominated at least once. Unfortunately, he died at the beginning of 2009.

    What about Simon White? I think he is the most-cited astronomer. Despite bibliometric caveats, he has done a huge amount of interesting work, though it is hard to single out one “thing”. Much of his work is collaborative, though, and one can’t narrow it down to just three people.

    • Nobody has actually observed accelerated expansion of the universe. What has been observed is a magnitude-redshift relationship that’s inconsistent with Friedman models that involve deceleration. I definitely agree that the SN stuff points to something very important but I still maintain we don’t really know what that something is.

    • “Nobody has actually observed accelerated expansion of the universe. What has been observed is a magnitude-redshift relationship that’s inconsistent with Friedman models that involve deceleration.”

      Yes, of course. But what does “observe acceleration” actually mean? Does that mean one must observe the velocity (how?) now and then again later and see how it is changed?

      What does one really observe? We don’t even observe redshifts and magnitudes, but rather the position of spectral lines and a number of photons counted by a CCD. In both cases we have a theory which relates a model of reality with observable quantities. Of course, the model could be wrong.

      If someone detects an extrasolar planet through Doppler motion of the primary, say, or some method other than direct imaging, should we be as sceptical regarding whether one “really” detected a planet?

      Many sceptics can think and have thought of other effects which would give the same observations. However, the standard interpretation is natural within the framework of standard cosmology and the burden of proof is on the sceptics, I think.

      An independent test which would be difficult to explain by anything other than ad hoc mechanisms (which goes for some of the attempts to explain away the current observations as well) and which confirms the result would be interesting. What about measuring redshifts now and again in 50 years time? Spectroscopy is precise enough that a change in redshift over such a time period could a) be observed and b) could rule out some cosmological models.

  3. Andrew Liddle Says:

    It’s rather baffling that when they make a prediction that someone will win in one year, which they then don’t, that those same people never crop up in subsequent predictions. Is being wrongly predicted by Thomson Reuters sufficient to rule people out of the Nobel competition?

    Andrew

  4. David Pendlebury Says:

    Dear Professor Coles:

    I was very interested in your comments on our Nobel selections this year. We always concede that experts in a field have a much better idea about contributions that may win a Nobel Prize than we do. Our citation analysis, which is another form of peer review writ large (top down rather than bottom up) is simply an attempt to recognize the cream that rises to the top. In the last decade WAMP papers and SN/acceleration papers take the forefront in terms of citations. Since the Nobel Prize often recognizes work done two decades ago, we may well be early. As for “dreaded”, “numerology”, “flummery” (the last particularly inspired), I guess I would only reply that Thomson Reuters is sincere in attempting to use citations of researchers themselves in a field to indicate and highlight the most influential work. As for our “abysmal” record, I would concede that the use of citations to flag physics Nobel Prizes has been particularly challenging. Why is hard to say. Finally, love that 007 picture of you –especially the cigarette in motion. “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown”, I would remind Daniel Craig. Cheers!

    • Dear David,

      We’ll have to see what happens in the Nobel prizes this year, which will be announced shortly. As far as I’m aware the various committees do not base their deliberations on citations, but on expert assessments of the nominations they receive. That probably explains the lack of past success: citation counts are a very poor proxy for this, as they are for many things for which they are nowadays used. Hence my jaundiced comments about the uniquitous presence of Thomson Reuters in such analyses. I’m happy to hear that you took my remarks in good spirit.

      As for the picture, I should point out that I don’t normally dress like that, that it’s actually a small cigar, and that the picture was taken before the introduction of the smoking ban a few years ago.

      Peter

  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    2010 physics Nobel is for graphene, to the guys predicted by Thomson Reuters for 2008.

  6. […] They were predicted to win two years ago by Thomson […]

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