Musings on optics, physics, astronomy, technology and life

Archive for October, 2011

Nobel week 2011

So … the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics went to, not the photonics researchers who had been mentioned in some predictions (see previous post), but to three astronomers who have been speculated about in recent years: Saul Perlmutter, Brian G. Schmidt, and Adam Riess. They are all fairly young guys, ranging in age from 52 to 41, and, one hopes, should be around to enjoy their Nobel fame for many years to come.

The only one of the trio whom I’ve seen in person is Perlmutter, who gave a talk at a conference I attended a few years back. However, I can’t remember exactly which conference it was, since I go to several a year. It could have been held by the AAS (American Astronomical Society), AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science), or something else entirely. (Here I pause to scratch my head.)

The current AAS president noted that this is “the third time in 10 years” that astronomers have received the Nobel nod. Historically, however, the astro-folk haven’t been all that successful with the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Before this past decade, Hulse and Taylor received the 1993 Nobel not just for their discovery of a binary pulsar, but for using it as a test of Einstein’s theory of general relativity. A decade earlier, Chandrasekhar and Fowler won for their studies of stellar evolution and chemical formation, respectively (and many years after their work was published).

The 1970s were another big year for the Nobel in astronomy, as Ryle and Hewish (but not Jocelyn Bell Burnell!) won in 1974 for pulsars and Penzias and Wilson won in 1978 for their discovery of the cosmic microwave background.

But before the 1970s? Just Hans Bethe in 1967 (stellar nucleosynthesis, although he did an awful lot of work elsewhere in nuclear physics) and Victor Hess way back in 1936 (discovery of cosmic rays). Other than that … many more Nobels have been bestowed for atomic and particle physics in particular. Even Einstein got the Nobel not for something that is noticeable on astronomical scales, like general relativity, but for the photoelectric effect, which is useful if you need night-vision goggles.

See, Alfred Nobel specified that his money should be awarded “to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” He did add that the physics award, in particular, could go to discoveries or inventions, although the prize-awarders tend to focus more on the former than the latter. (But not exclusively on the former — hence the recent nods for the CCD, fiber-optic communications, and the integrated circuit, all of which have benefited civilized society tremendously.)

Still, there are some huge figures in 20th-century astronomy who never heard from the Nobel committee. Edwin Hubble, who originally figured out the expansion of the universe. Karl Jansky and Grote Weber, who found radio waves coming from space. Vera Rubin for the galaxy-rotation “problem” and dark matter. The planet-hunters … the team that pinned down the value of the Hubble constant …  you get the picture.

Someone on the Physics Buzz blog wrote in more detail about Vera Rubin’s contributions and why her omission from the list of Nobel laureates is puzzling.

In other news this week … the Nobel Prize in chemistry went to Dan Shechtman for his discovery of quasicrystals — structures that are ordered but not periodic. I’m less of an expert on this topic than on astronomy, but quasicrystals have some use in photonics. A search of Optics InfoBase yields 26 hits on the word “quasicrystal” — photonic quasicrystals, extraordinary light transmission by a quasicrystal, diffraction, spectroscopy, etc. etc. All these papers were published in the last eight years. Clearly this is still an area of active investigation.

Finally, for anyone who is interested in media coverage of the Nobel Prizes, you can check out the Knight Science Journalism Tracker (in reverse chronological order) here, here and here. (Oh, and about those predictions…)

Thoughts at the start of Nobel Week

Wow … I’m glad I wasn’t on the Nobel Prize administration team this morning. Just after announcing that this year’s prize in medicine or physiology was being awarded to three immunologists, the committee learned that one of the three immunologists had died last Friday. Since the rules state that the prize is not supposed to be awarded posthumously, this was a major OOPS … or was it?

Later on in the day, the Nobel organizers announced that the late Ralph Steinman would remain a Nobel laureate, since the award-givers were acting in good faith on the assumption that Steinman was still alive. (Additional coverage of this from Science magazine, from the New York Times, from Nature, and from the Guardian (UK).)

Personally, I think the Nobel committee made the right call. It seems clear that the judges believed that they were awarding the prize to three living scientists, as the rules stipulate, and to “dis-award” the prize at this point would look tremendously churlish. Of course, it’s also terribly sad that Dr. Steinman never knew that he won the Nobel Prize.

Maybe this will be a wake-up call to the folks in Stockholm that they really ought to reduce the lag time between some useful discoveries and their recognition by Nobels — in other words, honor more deserving scientists before they get to be frail and/or dying of terminal diseases. Afraid of making some blooper? Well, there have already been a few controversies — such as the 1949 Nobel for the prefrontal leucotomy, better known as the now-discredited lobotomy. Hey, we’re all human. It was actually rather refreshing to see last year’s physics Nobel go to two researchers — one in his early 50s, the other in his late 30s — working on a topic of much current scientific and engineering interest, namely graphene.

Speaking of physics … who will win that physics Nobel tomorrow? The Guardian, while reviewing one prognostication that Asian scientists will soon start to crowd out Americans in the prize race, mentioned Sajeev John of Canada and Eli Yablonovitch of the United States as possible winners for photonics. (Yay for photonics!) Thomson Reuters also predicted the pair of John and Yablonovitch (maybe that’s where the Guardian got that notion) and, alternatively, the trio of Alain Aspect, John F. Clausner, and Anton Zeilinger for their studies of Bell’s inequalities and quantum entanglement. I’ve heard two of the three (Aspect and Zeilinger) speak at OSA meetings over the years. (Thomson Reuters also suggested a solid-state physicist from Japan.)

I’d also like to ask: What better way to commemorate the centenary of Marie Curie’s second Nobel Prize (granted, the one in chemistry) than to include a woman among the Nobel laureates in physics? Only two women have won Nobels in physics — Marie Curie in 1903 and Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963. (Chemistry isn’t doing that much better, with only four female laureates, including Ada Yonath in 2009.)

I could start naming names of female physicists, but it’s getting late. Only a few hours to go before the winner(s) is/are announced….