The 2017 Nobel Prize for Physics goes to…

Usually at this time of year I make a point of watching the live announcement of the Nobel Prize for Physics, but this time I was otherwise engaged. On the other hand, this year was the least surprising announcement I can remember for a long time. Confirming almost everyone’s expectations, the award goes to Rainer Weiss (MIT), Barry C. Barish (Caltech) and Kip S. Thorne (Caltech) “for decisive contributions to the LIGO detector and the observation of gravitational waves”. You can see the full citation here.

Perhaps one surprise the split (50% to Weiss and 25% each to Barish and Thorne). I suppose the reason is that it divides the prize equally between MIT and Caltech. Ronald Drever, who had shared in other awards for the LIGO discovery (e.g the Gruber,  Shaw and Kavli prizes), sadly passed away earlier this year.

Anyway,  heartiest congratulations to the winners and also to all the other members of the LIGO Scientific Collaboration who collectively earned this award! That includes the Gravitational Physics group at Cardiff University who will no doubt be getting pissed celebrating in appropriate style.

Two thoughts. One is that the LIGO Collaboration is very large (the papers have over a thousand authors) but the Nobel Prize rules do not allow this award to be divided among more than three people. This is a problem for `Big Science’ which is always done by large teams. In a real sense, the Nobel Prize for physics reflects the way physics was done when it was founded, over a hundred years ago. It seems to me the limitation perpetuates the myth of the lone genius, when science doesn’t really work like that nowadays. I’m not sure it ever did, actually. I  wonder if they’ll ever change?

Another thing that struck me is that the interval between discovery and award seems to be decreasing. For example, he Cosmic Microwave Background was discovered in 1965, but Penzias and Wilson were not awarded the Nobel Prize for its discovery until 1978. I attended the Nobel Prize ceremony in 2005, when George Smoot and John Mather were award the prize for COBE which had happened over a decade earlier. This time the gap between discovery and award is just two years. I suppose that proves that we live in an accelerating universe (Nobel Prize 2011).

Anyway there are too many people in LIGO for them all to be able to attend the Prize Ceremony and Banquet in Stockholm in December, but I hope the winners don’t just give their invitations to senior members of the LIGO collaboration. Perhaps some form of lottery might be organized to allow early career researchers to attend?

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog I had the honour to be invited to the 2006 Nobel Prize ceremony. As a matter of fact, I still have this:

The chocolate has probably gone off by now, though. I stress that I attended not as a winner but as a guest of the Nobel Foundation. It was a wonderful occasion, of which I have very special memories. I’m sure everyone who does get to attend will have a ball! (Geddit?)

Although the Nobel Prize has its limitations as a true reflection of scientific contributions, I still has value in that for once the news media are talking about a great human achievement which contrasts with much of the stuff we have to hear about these days.

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35 Responses to “The 2017 Nobel Prize for Physics goes to…”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    Although I prefer being a contrarian, I am in no doubt that this was the right choice. Many congratulations to all involved. The detection and verification of that first signal was a great day for science.

    It seems to me the limitation perpetuates the myth of the lone genius, when science doesn’t really work like that nowadays. I’m not sure it ever did, actually.

    Experimental work is increasingly a team effort, but theory? A new idea necessarily occurs to only one person. The issue is how innovative that idea is compared to the ideas upon which it was built. Difficult…

    • telescoper Says:

      I thought it was odd that the Higgs Boson prize went only to the theorists and not to anyone at all from the LHC. Of course Englert and Higgs (and others) made the prediction but the prize would not have been given without the detection.

      In this case the prediction was made by Einstein, who is not eligible…

      It does seem to me that the simple narrative that ideas pop into one person’s head rarely fits. Often one person manages to crystallize something out of a mess of theoretical stuff, but this is still the result of a collective effort.

      • Will Sutherland Says:

        Note that giving the prize to Englert and Higgs for the theory does not preclude them giving a future prize to some of LHC for the experiment (though of course it’s tricky to pick 1-3 people from LHC).

        There is some precedent for this e.g. Glashow, Salam & Weinberg won for electroweak theory, then Rubbia and van de Meer won for discovering the W & Z bosons (although G,S & W already got the prize in 1979 based on other experimental evidence, before the W & Z were directly observed c.1982; the CERN team who discovered neutral currents c.1972 never got the prize, which looks rather unfair). A much eariler case would be: Anderson discovered the positron in 1932, Dirac won the prize in 1933, then Anderson around 1936.

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    As I recall the Nobel cannot go to more than three persons. Is there a further regulation about how it is divided? Can it be 3 * 1/3 rather than the usual 1/2 – 1/4 – 1/4?

    • As far as I know, there are no regulations about that. For example, in 2014 all three physics laureates got one third of the prize.

    • It’s either one third each or 50/25/25 per cent.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        I have no reason to doubt you but can you source that, please?

      • The statues say about shared prizes:

        “A prize amount may be equally divided between two works, each of which is considered to merit a prize. If a work that is being rewarded has been produced by two or three persons, the prize shall be awarded to them jointly. In no case may a prize amount be divided between more than three persons.”

        So it could be understood that when the prize is given to three people, it can be either all of them jointly for one work, in which case everyone would get one third, or two works each getting one half and one of the halves is shared resulting in 1/2 – 1/4 -1/4. However, they don’t seem to say explicitly that shares for joint work need to be equal.

      • I can’t find it now either, but I am sure that I have read this in some official document.

      • Anton Garrett Says:

        Thanks to Anon. I should have clarified that my request was about the rules governing the split, not the 2014 split specifically.

      • The statues also say:

        “Each prize-awarding body shall be competent to decide whether the prize it is entitled to award may be conferred upon an institution or association.”

        So while awards to more than three persons are not allowed, it seems to me that giving the prize to LIGO Scientific Collaboration as a whole would actually be permitted.

  3. The Nobel Foundation, while conservative, has changed some rules. Nobel’s will originally specified the prize for work done in the previous year. It also specified one person. So rules do change.

    I don’t think that giving it to groups is a good idea, though (except the Peace Prize, where there are different rules and this was often the case).

    Yes, LIGO and other big projects involve many people. But how many did Nobel-worthy work? Every student who calibrated a detector for a summer project (and would not even be considered by anyone for identical work done elsewhere)?

    There are many reasons not to split the prize into smaller pieces. (One can argue whether three, four, or five should be the limit, of course.)

    First, it would water it down. With thousands of living Nobelists, those without a prize might be in the minority.

    Those without a prize would be mainly people who don’t work in large groups, so giving it to groups would disadvantage these people.

    No, the current rules don’t disadvantage groups, because only a few people in the big groups did Nobel-worthy work.

    No-one cares that Feynman had only a third of a Nobel. But every member of a group of thousands calling themself a Nobel-Prize winner on their CV is stretching truth in advertising a bit too far. (I’ve already seen this with other, almost comparable, prizes, which are awarded to groups. One of a group of a thousand who got the prize? Put it on your CV, with no qualifications. Really a slap in the face to those who were awarded it alone.)

    • I think it would be better to give two prizes to persons and one to the group (as a collective person), of smallest values; so that members of the research group might feel grateful for the honor in the ceremony, with a representative of the group, and with the possibility to use the honor in the curriculum vitae (a small contribution is a contribution).
      Any choice is perfect for science, which progresses in any case.

  4. Luis Sanchez Says:

    I have mixed feelings towards this. Barish role in LIGO has always been that of a manager. And while nobody doubt that the project made significant advances in the mid 90s since he was assigned manager (and that was in no small measure due to technological advances regardless of who was managing) I don’t see him as a big contributor to the field of GW itself. Reiss indeed produced the first functional design (although Gertsenshtein and Pustovoit were the first to propose a km length interferometer as a GW detector and also showed why resonant bars wouldn’t work as Weber expected). Thorne was by large the biggest drive in getting the project through the NSF not to mention he was the only theorist working seriously in the field for decades and made the first calculations of what a GWO would detect. Drever was the one who actually made the laser system for the interferometer (along with Pound who had merits to win the nobel at least twice).

    But Barish? He was an efficient manager, which is not without merit but is is a prize in *physics*. Why not giving it to the guys of the NSF who have funded tons of Nobel prizing research? Or the taxpayer for that sake?

    Besides, I find the delay of one year quite baffling. If they wanted to give the prize for a surprising discovery like the J/Psi they should had give it asap. But they waited one year, fully knowing that Drever was seriously ill (and that the topological phase transition was already part of the nobel prize for the FQH effect) so they felt the need to fill that “void” with Barish? Of course, they knew that Thorne and Reiss aren’t teenagers but that only pushes the argument in the direction of giving it past year.

    Anyway, end of rant, just note that maybe we shouldn’t put such a big weight on whatever a bunch of elder swedes decide. Today they have decided to glorify a manager on top of two of the greatest experimentalists of the past century: Drever and Pound. And Drever was alive last year, we all knew he was ill but somehow the academy decided to remember the topological phase transition out of the blue.

  5. I actually agree with Luis. Probably there were other equally (if not more deserving candidates) such as Stan Whitcomb, Peter Saulson etc. Btw incidentally this is not the first nobel prize on gravitational waves. The first one was given in 1993, but I have rarely seen any interview or media appearance of the 1993 laureates since the 2015 discovery.

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, I was thinking that. Both Hulse and Taylor are still around…

      • IIRC Hulse is ill and/or has left the field. Taylor regularly shows up at GR conferences.

      • Philip. The 2013 Dallas symposium is one of the rare conferences where Taylor was there. I don’t think he was there at the GR conference in Columbia. I don’t think he was at the NSF, when press announcement n discovery of GWs was made. (In earl talks on LIGO people always quoted the H-T binary pulsar as indirect evidence for GWs). Plus I cannot find a single interview of Taylor (or any quotes from him) post the GW150914 discovery.

      • I thought I should mention this caveat. That is where I last saw him. I assumed that he probably goes to more GR conferences than I do, but maybe that is not the case. 😐

        45 years ago, every time I went to a certain restaurant, I saw someone I knew from school. I concluded (correctly, I think) that he must go there much more often than I do. (No, the boy in the restaurant wasn’t Joe Taylor!)

        I’m pretty sure he was at another conference I attended, probably a Texas Symposium, perhaps Munich 1994, but I’m not sure.

  6. Luis Sanchez Says:

    Yes, I was aware of the funky timeline. But hey, couldn’t they make a phone call to the LIGO team: “people, is your discovery on solid ground? can you show us the pre print of your paper?” .

    I don’t know. Maybe I shall recognize that the Nobel committee is, in essence, a nineteenth century institution and that it acts as such. But I am also tired of always seeing people from the same institutions feeding the endogamic recognition cycle. The work made at Glasgow was every bit as important as the one made at Caltech and MIT. Actually LIGO was only born after Caltech managed to seduce half of the people from Glasgow to move there (the other half made GEO 600 and the UK ended with no detector despite having the top group in the field). Barish is one of the greatest managers of our time and is also directed efforts at ILC and Grand Sasso. But precisely, because of that, due to his spread of managing a lot of unrelated projects it is clear that his contributions are not in physics but in large collaboration management. Which is no small feat in itself but wasn’t the Nobel supposed to be awarded for contributions in *physics*? Vladimir Borisovich Braginsky also died last year and would had been an excellent candidate. Anyway: Isn’t it sad that neither Dicke, Pound, Drever or Braginsky never got the prize? Dicke and Pound had merits to win the Nobel several times. And yet, managers DO get it. Just food for thought, congratulations for LIGO. Even a few years ago when I attended talks by LIGO memebers that at most found placed limits on neutron star spherical shapes I felt like “this people has the biggest patience in the world, they might not detect anything in their lifetime” and look where we are now!

  7. […] A blog about the Universe, and all that surrounds it « The 2017 Nobel Prize for Physics goes to… […]

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  9. telescoper Says:

    And it seems that, yet again, the Chemistry Nobel Prize goes to physicists…

  10. […] And then there’s the Nobels’ inability to keep up with the way science is actually done. The physics prize went to three (white) men, but as Peter Coles (blogging as telescoper) notes at In the Dark, the gravitational waves papers involve more than a thousand authors. […]

    • Strange that people who otherwise think that people should be valued for their accomplishments and not because of their background are all to quick to criticize people because of nothing other than their age and race. 😦

      Yes, it went to three white men. Yes, there were many people involved. But the three white men were arguably crucial to the project, and most of the others weren’t.

      It is absurd to see this as some sort of racism.

      These guys are about 80 years old. So, the prize might reflect the demographics of the field 50 years ago, when this work was started. Prizes awarded 50 years from now will probably reflect today’s demographics in the corresponding fields (i.e. not the demographics at the time when the prize is awarded, and not the demographics of society at large, should these differ from the demographics in the field now).

      In particular, Kip Thorne was working almost alone on the theory of gravitational waves for decades. If anyone deserves this prize, it is he.

    • One of the old white guys is Rainer Weiss, who fled the Nazis with his family as a child (his father was Jewish, a communist, and a friend of Walther Rathenau). I think he knows a thing or two about racism.

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