Thursday, October 8, 2009

Bad Bets... and the Nobel Prize

My grandfather was a bookie – a guy who professionally handles bets. Although a good bookie never needs to risk much of his own money (since his bets are well balanced with just a bit of a margin for profit) most bookies do know what a good bet is and what a bad bet is.

Apparently I have no idea what a good bet is – even when I know a topic extremely well. My predictions for the Nobel Prize in Physics this year were way off*. Even listing everyone I could think of who was in the running, I didn’t even get close. The winners were not even on my radar screen. This is particularly embarrassing since two of the three winners were old Bell Labs guys and I certainly knew very well of their work, and of its importance [ although I never met either one of them since even the younger of the two retired from Bell a decade before I ever arrived ].

The two guys at Bell, Smith and Boyle, are credited with inventing the CCD (Charge Coupled Device). That is the little semiconductor gizmo that turns an optical picture into a stream of electrons which then can be turned into a digital computer file. There’s a CCD in every digital camera. The other guy, Kao, who shared the Nobel with them, developed the fiber optic, which comprises the famous “series of tubes” which carry information through the internet. Bits of information are turned into photons that run down glass fibers called optical fibers.

The prize this year was perhaps an unusual one – it is clearly technology rather than physics, but it is important technology. There has been some grousing around the internet (for example, here) that this prize was not deserving because it is just engineering. (Here I’m repeating here a comment that I posted on Doug’s blog here) The key question is what the Nobel prize should be about --- what the Nobel prize "brand" should mean. There are certainly plenty of important technology/physics advances that could potentially be recognized --- and the original intent of Nobel’s will certainly gave this latitude. It also said that the discovery should be made within the previous year --- a requirement which has been duly ignored ever since ---- which shows mainly that the Nobel committee can do whatever they want to do to promote the "brand" as they see fit. However, by far, MOST of the prizes have been for "fundamental" physics advances, and not for technology advances, which sets a precedent for what the committee thinks it is supposed to be about and this prize does not look so consistent with that interpretation. (The integrated circuit prize was another recent prize for technology --- although I think that this prize was perhaps more agreed upon as being a universal game changer that needed to be recognized).

*I did make the right prediction for the Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine, but almost everyone seemed to know that one in advance.

** Added: Obama's Nobel: Yes, I was pretty surprised by this one too. Many people say he hasn't earned it yet, but if you read the explanation given by the committee, it makes sense. I like it.

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