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.




15 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.

    • Phillip Helbig Says:

      The statutes have been changed. Originally it was one person, for work done during the previous year. But there has to be a line somewhere. One can debate about 2 or 3 or 4, but giving the non-Peace prizes to collaborations doesn’t make any sense. Yes, most people work in large collaborations these days, and soon everyone would have a Nobel Prize. Then what’s the point? With other prizes, people are now putting them on their CVs, but you have to read the fine print to see that it was as part of a collaboration with a few thousand other people. But even in collaborations, not everyone has done work worthy of the Nobel Prize. Sure, most people do good work, but so do most people who never have a chance at a Nobel Prize. And it would then bias the prizes against those who work alone or in small groups.

      • 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.

      • Phillip Helbig Says:


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

  3. Phillip Helbig Says:

    Of course, Der Spiegel (“The Mirror”) is in German (it is the most popular and best weekly news magazine), but they do have a few things in English. I’ll have to check whether this interview was in English or is a translation; that might be significant here. If it was in English, then it’s probably OK, at least (and this always applies) if it is an accurate transcription of what was said, as Genzel is fluent in English. However, if it’s a translation, then even if it is technically OK, the tone can change.

  4. Phillip Helbig Says:

    “And where was the problem?”

    He gave an honest answer to an honest question. I’m assuming that he knows of the publicity and wouldn’t say anything which is untrue. The story that Ghez claimed that Genzel had fabricated his data, then gets annoyed after someone told her that they had moved to a larger telescope, is a highly serious charge (her claim, not his story), completely uncalled for on her part, and it is completely understandable if he doesn’t downplay it—at least if, as here, asked a direct question.

  5. Phillip Helbig Says:

    “No, I wouldn’t say that..” indicates that is precisely what he thinks.

    I mentioned that Genzel is fluent in English. (I met him briefly when he gave a talk in Groningen about 20 years ago, when he was the Oort Professor in Leiden.) Fluent in the usual sense of the term applied to scientists talking about science. However, as someone fluent in both English and German, while it is true in English that the phrase above has a connotation opposite the literal meaning, or at least can, that is definitely not the case in German, where instead it is a polite way to tell the other person that they are wrong. So maybe that remark was lost in translation.

  6. Phillip Helbig Says:

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

    Of course, that might be true, I don’t know. He discusses pressure in that direction on a similar committee. Assuming it is true, should he gloss over it?

    I’ve been to a couple of conferences where there was an obvious effort to achieve gender balance. That wasn’t appreciated by all, including some women who were clearly uncomfortable that they were asked to be on a panel or whatever and it was obvious to them that it wasn’t because they were an expert in the field. It’s hard to think of a worse insult, actually.

    Virginia Trimble (still very active today) was a woman astronomer back when there weren’t that many. As such, she was often asked to be the token woman but also often explicitly said that she was involved in this or that because they needed a woman. More recently, she has come under fire from some social-justice warriors who have deemed some of her comments to be politically incorrect. She started out when there really were substantial disadvantages for women in astrononomy, so I would have hoped that people would take it from someone who earned it but, as with other issues as well, such social-justice warriors are usually not interested in truth. Which is sad, because often the goal which they (claim to) support is a worthy one, but they behave pretty much exactly like some fifth-column agent provocateur would in order to discredit the cause.

  7. Phillip Helbig Says:

    The interview appears to be a translation of one dated 6 days earlier which, however, is paywalled, so I can’t check the interesting bits. 😦

  8. “… 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.

    • Phillip Helbig Says:

      One could argue that it would be a defensible position to award half the prize (the other half went to Penrose) to Genzel rather than a quarter to him and a quarter to Ghez. However, as Genzel has believably pointed out, that was not what he was expecting, as he had received the Shaw and Crafoord prizes, which perhaps to some extent were designed to fill a gap left by the Nobel Prizes.

      Is the fact that there are now more Nobel Prizes for astrophysics a result of the several new and similarly financially rewarding prizes specifically for astrophysics? Of course, there might be other reasons as well.

  9. Phillip Helbig Says:

    “An Ungracious Nobel”

    Well, it is the Nobel Prize, not the noble prize. 🙂

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