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…)