Sunday, September 27, 2009

Nobel-Bets 2009

Well, it is that time of year again – the time when some really smart people start losing sleep worrying about whether they will get the Nobel prize. For the literature prize the official betting odds are listed here. The favorite is Amos Oz, but Bob Dylan is a 25:1 long shot on this list.

For the physics prize, each year, I try to make a few predictions for who will win. Last year’s incorrect prediction is posted on my blog here (Egad, that means I’ve been blogging for a whole year now!). This year I decided to do a bit more homework before making my prediction. While neutrino mass (my prediction from last year) still seems to me to be pretty important, after scanning the web, it seems to me that almost no one thinks that this is a contender. I suppose, like for the Oscars, the opinions of the masses may be important, so this year I am switching my bet to

Yakir Aharanov and Michael Berry

These two studied what are known as “Geometric Phases” in physics. (For the experts, yes, you can think of the Aharanov Bohm phase as being geometric, although you have to expand your picture of geometry a bit). Perhaps the simplest example of an interesting geometric phase is the strange quantum mechanical fact that when you rotate an electron around in a circle by 360 degrees you do not get back to where you started.

The Reuter’s web site gives Aharanov and Berry support from 19% of those polled. (Several other blogs here and here and here and here agree that this is a good bet).

However, according to the Reuters shortlist, the frontrunners for the prize should be recognized for discovering forms of carbon. Reuters proposes Geim and Novoselov (22%) for the discovery of graphene (carbon sheets) and Ijima (14%) narrowly behind for the discovery of nanotubes (carbon sheets rolled up into a tube). Not that I am opposed to carbon but…

I will remind everyone that Buckyballs, yet another form of Carbon, already won the Nobel prize recently – but in chemistry, not physics. I will also remind everyone that not every molecule made of carbon deserves an immediate Nobel prize. I know that the Carbonists have been lobbying hard, and admittedly both nanotubes and graphene are pretty cool. But I don’t think they are so overwhelmingly cool that they need a Nobel prize just yet. And if the lessons of Buckyballs are anything to learn from, we should expect that the hype will far outweigh the actual usefulness of, or interest in, the stuff in the long run.

A few other people who appear to be on many of the shortlists are Cirac and Zoller (too early in my mind, but maybe sometime soon), and Peter Higgs (not until the elusive Higgs boson is actually discovered). Daniel Kleppner is another person frequently mentioned. Some people have proposed John Pendry for metamaterials and the famous cloaking device (while cool, i think this is far from Nobel material). Also the discovery of the top quark is still waiting for a prize and of course my prior mention of neutrino mass I still think is deserving. I'd also like people to think about some of the dark-horse candidates: Thouless, Halperin (my PhD advisor, I'm biased), and Haldane, are some of the people from my community who could potentially be in the running.

Anyway, we will find out within a few days now.

In other Nobel prediction news:

In Physiology and Medicine, one of the names very high on the Reuters list is Seiji Ogawa. He’s an old Bell labs guy, who invented functional MRI (fMRI) - the MRI machines that can see brain activity. For a brief moment, I think he was listed as being a consultant and I was listed as his boss at Bell labs, although in truth by that time he was listed on our roster for publicity only... and he never showed up any more – I suspect he would not recognize me if I bit him (and I have no intention of biting him, whether or not he wins the prize).

Other contenders in Physiology: Telomerase seems to be the front-runner, with stem-cells another good bet.


Stephen said...

This morning I heard someone predicting Thouless for Physics and Geim for Chemistry, but I'm obviously not at liberty to divulge which Kolkata-born, College Park-based physicist it was.

Steve said...

Thouless for physics would be terrific. Not sure if the Chemists would support Geim. The trick of using Scotch tape to pull of single layers of a material doesn't seem to be "fundamental" Chemistry.

Laura said...

I think you need a new crystal ball according to the Times this morning...

Steve said...

I may be blogging about my errors soon -- stay tuned.