Archive for Barry C. Barish

The 2017 Nobel Prize for Physics goes to…

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on October 3, 2017 by telescoper

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.