An Ungracious Nobel

Reinhard Genzel

You will no doubt recall the announcement a few weeks ago of the award of the 2020 Nobel Prize for Physics to Roger Penrose, Andrea Ghez and Reinhard Genzel.

Last week I saw an interview Professor Genzel to the German magazine Der Spiegel, which you can find here. I posted in on Facebook and was going to blog about it but I was busy and it slipped my mind. You can read the interview yourself and form your own opinion about it, but I found parts of it churlish and discourteous. You would think someone who had just won a Nobel prize would be a bit more gracious. Perhaps Genzel resents having to share it?

The first thing I found regrettable was the part about the work of the Event Horizon Telescope that I reported here last year:

Genzel: It was good that their image received a lot of attention. It is important to get people excited about research. And astronomy has a special role to play.

DER SPIEGEL: Are you trying to say that the image was good for attracting an audience, but wasn’t all that important from a scientific point of view?

Genzel: No, I wouldn’t say that. It is true, though, that such a beautiful, orange picture is enticing, even if it can’t be clearly interpreted. An open discussion is still ongoing among experts: Are we really sure of what we are looking at in this picture?

It is true that there are questions about how precisely to interpret the famous image, but did he really have to sound so dismissive? It seems to me that what follows  “No, I wouldn’t say that..” indicates that is precisely what he thinks.

I think of more importance though is what the interview reveals about his attitude to Andrea Ghez, with whom he shared half the prize. I’m not going to comment on the obvious falling out between the two. That kind of thing is regrettable but it does happen from time to time, and I don’t know enough about the background to attach any blame to either side. The question is, though, why would Genzel choose this moment to drag this all up? He seems to be going out of his way to imply that Andrea Ghez didn’t deserve her share of the prize.  Ypu would think someone who had just won a Nobel Prize would be a bit more gracious. And although he doesn’t say it explicitly there is more than a hint that he thinks Andrea Ghez only got her share because she is a woman.

Perhaps I’m reading too much into his words, but I know I’m not the only one to have been “disappointed” by these remarks. I’ve always supported the idea of the Physics Nobel Prize primarily on the grounds that it gets people talking about Physics, which this year’s announcement certainly has done. I just wish this particular interview had been more focussed on celebrating the science than on scoring points over his co-winner.





5 Responses to “An Ungracious Nobel”

  1. I’m not really surprised. I never worked on anything related to Genzel’s work and have never met him. but even so I remember hearing stories years ago about him being slightly obsessed with getting a Nobel…

    In fact, that’s one of the reasons why I’m strongly opposed to Nobels. It seems that too many people care far too much about getting one. Also, while it does get people talking about science for a couple of days, at the same time it paints a wrong (or at least badly outdated) picture of just a few lone geniuses are achieving great things. The strict limit to three recipients is completely incompatible with how science is done today and it often leads to controversies about who gets the prize (this year’s chemistry prize is one example).

    Some of the problems could probably be fixed by changing the Nobel statutes, but I would much rather see them just stopping altogether.

    • The point would be exactly to make Nobels meaningless, so they could be stopped… I think that Nobels and other large science prizes like the Breakthrough Prizes are harmful to science.

  2. Peter, do (or anyone else) know why/when they had a fallout?

  3. “… there is more than a hint that he thinks Andrea Ghez only got her share because she is a woman.”

    That’s not really what he is saying. At least, he is also saying that he (Genzel) ALSO only got his share of the prize because Andrea Ghez is a woman.

    A third Nobel to astrophysics in four years is quite notable. (After a total of 4 in the previous century.) He is suggesting that they picked this topic to receive the prize, because that meant that one of the awardees would be a woman. Whatever that says about the prize going to Ghez, it says the same about the prize going to Genzel.

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