Saturday, September 25, 2010

Nobel Bets 2010

It is that time of year again -- the time when the best and the brightest from around the world lose sleep wondering if they are going to get that early morning call from Sweden announcing that they have won the Nobel prize.

Last year I placed my wager on Yakir Aharonov and Michael Berry for geometric phases in physics. This turned out to be a bad bet. From now on I am removing Aharonov from my list of likely candidates. Why? Because I was informed that the 1961 work he is most famous for actually discovered 12 years earlier by Ehrenberg and Siday (Even Wikipedia appears aware of this). The fact that it is called the “Ahanronov-Bohm effect” appears to be a good example of Stigler’s law: The principle that nothing is ever named after its original discoverer. (Stigler’s law itself was discovered by Merton).

Since last year, the prize went to Smith and Boyle and Kao for what many people disparaged as “just engineering” (albeit some pretty amazing engineering). Given that, I think this year the prize might go to something a bit more fundamental. A decent bet would be Sir Michael Berry (without Aharonov).

However, for my money, I think the front-runner is the WMAP experiment (Wilkenson Microwave Anisotropy Probe) which measured the fluctuations of the temperature of the universe – telling us a whole lot about its history. It is a very important experiment. Reuters actually agrees that this one is a pretty good bet. Another really good bet (in my opinion) is the Neutrino Mass experiment from Super-K. I bet on them in 2008 (and lost, as usual).

Another bet on Reuters is Ebbesen for surface plasmons: collective motion of light and electrons together on the surface of metals. While this is nice work, and Ebbesen is a good scientist, I think it is far from a Nobel.

Olaf Smits, in Dublin, mentioned a really interesting possibility. While a bit out of the box for a Nobel Prize in Physics, the fact that last year was a bit out of the box indicates that the Nobel committee is willing to break some rules these days. Olaf’s bet is that the prize will be awarded for the discovery of exo-solar planets. In the star-trek futuristic “this is our moment to discover that we are not alone” kind of way, I think a case could be made that this is worthy.


Don Monroe said...

There were some interesting letters to Physics Today in the last month or two discussing whether Ehrenberg and Siday really captured the full philosophical implications to the extent that Aharonov and Bohm did. I don't think I can do justice to the arguments, but there is a case for the traditional AB nomenclature.

Steve said...

Hi Don,

Thanks for the comment. I'll have to read the physics today article, but when I read their Ehrenberg-Siday article (last few paragraphs) it is clear that they understood quite well why this this is strange. Further they also made the rather key connection to superconducting rings where it was already known that a similar effect occurs! Looks to me like they grasped the implications pretty well -- and pointed out that it was already known even before them!

Don Monroe said...

Here's the link to a couple of letters, which in turn link to an earlier one. Michael Berry, for one, says that AB is appropriate.

I have no horse in this race.

Susanne said...

According to Nobel's will, the prizes should be given "to those who, during the preceding year, shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind [...] One part to the person who shall have made the most important discovery or invention within the field of physics". So actually, 'engineering prizes' are in Nobel's spirit -- while giving it for very fundamental discoveries without direct applications, means breaking the rules... ;)

Anonymous said...

Has Steven Hawking been discarded for good? Nobody even mentions him anymore.

Steve said...

I'm not sure Hawking was ever a serious candidate. While a remarkable person and very bright physicist, I'm not sure his contributions merit a Nobel. Nor have they been tested by any experiment --- which is usually required.

HM said...

No bet on Thouless, Halperin, and Haldane this year?

Steve said...


while I'd love to see it, I think it is not very likely.

Anonymous said...

I know "Stigler's Law" as "Arnold's Principle", which, according to the late V. Arnold, was formulated by Michael Berry as:

"The Arnold Principle. If a notion bears a personal name, then this name is not the name of the discoverer.

The Berry Principle. The Arnold Principle is applicable to itself."

grumpy said...

funny that you omitted this, but it is well-known in my circle that "Berry's" phase wasn't actually discovered by Berry.

I personally think the discovery that scotch tape can peel off a conceptually simple system with rich physics that was previously elusive is much cooler (maybe its the bc Im an experimentalist though).

Steve said...

I know there was some previous work to Berry, but I think the whole story was not really put together until him. I'm not sure I know all the relevant works though... if you send the refs, I'll look through them and form an appropriate opinion.