Archive for Nobel Prize for Physics

Nobel Prize for Physics Matters

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on October 1, 2018 by telescoper

I’ve been a bit tied up writing lecture notes and participating in telecons today, so I’ve just got time for a little post to mention that tomorrow morning (October 2nd 2018) will see the announcement of this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics.

I do, of course, already have a Nobel Prize of my own, dating from 2006, when I was lucky enough to attend the prize-giving ceremony and banquet.

I was, however, a guest of the Nobel Foundation rather than a prizewinner, so my medal is made of chocolate rather than gold. Still, it was a very nice weekend!

I have no idea who will win the Physics Nobel Prize tomorrow. If you have any suggestions please put then forward through the comments box.

I’d say there’s an outside chance that there might be an award for the discovery of exoplanets, as that has certainly altered humanity’s perception of its place in the Universe. It’s by no means obvious to me who should win it, however. Possibilities are Possible winners include Didier Queloz, Aleksander Wolszczan, Dale Frail, and Michel Mayor, but which? It may also be too soon after the gravitational waves prize last year. Perhaps it’s time for something less exotic this year? To find out you’ll have to wait for the announcement, around about 10.45 (UK/Irish time) tomorrow morning.

Anyway, for the record, I’ll reiterate my opinion that while the Nobel Prize is flawed in many ways, particularly because it no longer really reflects how physics research is done, it does at least have the effect of getting people talking about physics. Surely that at least is a good thing?

UPDATE: And the winner is…

One half to Arthur Askey Ashkin, and the other half jointly to Gérard Mourou and Donna Strickland, for “groundbreaking inventions in the field of laser physics.”

So there are you are. The rumours were, as usual, completely wrong.

Oh, and Donna Strickland is the first woman to win the physics Nobel since Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963. Congratulations to her, and indeed to all this year’s winners!


Nobel Predictions

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on September 24, 2010 by telescoper

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…


Nobel Betting

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on October 5, 2009 by telescoper

I’m reminded that the 2009 Nobel Prize for Physics will be announced tomorrow, on Tuesday 6th October. A recent article in the Times Higher suggested that British physicists might be in line for glory (based on a study of citation statistics). However, the Table they produced showed that their predictions haven’t really got a good track record so it might be unwise to bet too much on the outcome! This year’s predictions are at the top, with previous years underneath; the only successful prediction is highlighted in blue:


The problem I think is that it’s difficult to win the Nobel Prize for theoretical work unless confirmed by a definitive experiment, so much as I admire (Lord) Martin Rees – and would love to see a Nobel Prize going to astrophysics generally – I think I’d have to mark him down as an outsider. It would be absurd to give the prize to string theory, of course, as that makes no contact whatsoever with experiment or observation.

I think it would be particularly great if Sir Michael Berry won a share of the physics prize, but we’ll have to wait and see. The other British runner in the paddock is Sir John Pendry. While it would be excellent for British science to have a Nobel prize, what I think is best about the whole show is that it is one of the rare occasions that puts a spotlight on basic science, so it’s good for all of us (even us non-runners).

I think the panel made a bit of a bizarre decision last year and I hope there won’t be another steward’s enquiry this year to distract us from the chance to celebrate the achievements of the winner(s).

I’d be interested to hear any thoughts on other candidates through the comments box. No doubt there’ll be some reactions after the announcement too!

Nobel Sur-prize

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on October 7, 2008 by telescoper

I was waiting for the letter from Stockholm, but it didn’t come. Maybe next year…

Anyway, this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics has been awarded to Yoichiro Nambu (half the prize) and the other half is split between
Makoto Kobayashi and Toshihide Maskawa. All three are extremely distinguished physicists and their contributions certainly deserve to be rewarded. But, in the case of Kobayashi and Maskawa, the Nobel Foundation has made a startling omission that I really can’t understand at all and which even threatens to undermine the prestige of the prize itself.

The work for which these two were given half the Nobel Prize this year relates to the broken symmetry displayed by weak interactions between quarks. We now know that there are three generations of quarks, each containing quarks of two different flavours. The first generation contains the up (u) and the down (d), the second the strange (s) and the charmed (c), and the third has the bottom (b) and the top (t). OK, so the names are daft, but physicists have never been good at names.

The world of quarks is different to penetrate becauses quarks interact via the strong force which binds them close together into hadrons which are either baryons (three quarks) or mesons (a quark and an anti-quark).

But there are other kinds of particles too, the leptons. These are also arranged in three generations but each of these families contains a charged particle and a neutrino. The first generation is an electron and a neutrino, the second a muon and its neutrino, and the third has the tau and another neutrino. One might think that the three quark generations and the three lepton generations might have some deep equivalence between them, but leptons aren’t quarks so can’t interact at all by the strong interaction. Quarks and leptons can both interact via the weak interaction (the force responsible for radioactive beta-decay).

Weak interactions between leptons conserve generation, so the total number of particles of electron type is never changed (ignoring neutrino oscillations, which have only relatively recently been discovered). It seemed natural to assume that weak interactions between quarks should do the same thing, forbidding processes that hop between generations. Unfortunately, however, this is not the case. There are weak interactions that appear to convert u and/or d quarks into c and/or s quarks, but these seem to be relatively feeble compared to interactions within a generation, which seem to happen with about the same strength for quarks as they do for leptons. This all suggests that there is some sort of symmetry lurking somewhere in there, but it’s not quite what one might have anticipated.

The explanation of this was proposed by Nicola Cabibbo who, using a model in which there are only two quark generations, developed the idea that states of pure quark flavour (“u” or “d”, say) are not really what the weak interaction “sees”. In other words, the quark flavour states are not proper eigenstates of the weak interaction. All that is needed is to imagine that the required eigenstates are a linear combination of the flavour states and, Bob’s your uncle, quark generation needn’t be conserved. This phenomenon is called Quark Mixing. What makes it simple for only two generations is that it can be described entirely by one number: the Cabibbo angle, which measures how much the quark flavour basis is misaligned with the weak interaction basis. The angle is small so the symmetry is only slightly broken.

Kobayashi and Maskawa generalized the work of Cabibbo to the case of three quark generations. That’s actually quite a substantial task as the description of mixing in this case requires not just a single number but a 3×3 matrix each of whose entries is complex. This matrix is universally called the Cabibbo-Kobayashi-Maskawa (CKM) matrix and it now crops up all over the standard model of particle physics.

And there’s the rub. Why on Earth was Cabibbo not awarded a share of this year’s prize? I was shocked and saddened to find out that he’d been passed over despite the fact that his work so obviously led the way. I can think of no reason why he was omitted. It’s outrageous. I even feel sorry for Kobayashi and Maskawa, because there is certain to be such an outcry about this gaffe that it may detract from their success.

But really