The Politics, Rivalries, and Sweet Science Behind the Nobel Prize Decisions

The state of the universe.
Oct. 10 2013 8:14 AM

Who Will Win a Nobel Prize?

Everything you need to know about the contenders, rivalries, scandals, and politics of the famous awards.

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Thomas Starzl is a decent possibility for his work on organ transplants and rejection. He just won the Lasker Prize this year. They did give a Nobel on the topic already, which might hurt his chances.

I think Jeff Gordon may eventually win a Nobel for the microbiome, but a colleague here says it's too soon—that the microbiome hasn't proven its medical worth yet.

The Nobel Prize in Physics

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Slate contributor Charles Seife, a journalism professor at New York University:

We have to get one thing out of the way first. It's not going to be for the Higgs. It's too early. Even if the Higgs evidence from CERN was hammer-hitting-you-on-the-head conclusive (which it isn't), it would be a few years before the Nobel committee would likely award a prize.

For me, the big news in physics in the past 15 years comes from cosmology. A large set of new observations confirmed a number of big predictions about the way we thought the universe worked—and revealed a whole bunch of things that we didn't expect at all. For example, last year's Nobel went to Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt, and Adam Riess; they studied ultradistant supernovae, and by looking at how fast those exploding stars were receding into the distance, they discovered that the universe is full of "dark energy," a mysterious force that is forcing the universe to expand ever faster. I think this is just the beginning of a new rush of cosmology Nobels.

The single person I most want to win the Nobel is Jim Peebles at Princeton University. He was part of the team that predicted the cosmic microwave background—the leftover glow from the hot, young universe shortly after the Big Bang. In the early 1970s, along with Jerry Ostriker, Peebles ran some computer simulations that strongly implied that galaxies would fly apart without something else, some unseen ingredient, to bind the galaxy together more strongly. We now call that ingredient "dark matter." However, I predict that the long-overdue dark matter Nobel will go to a very deserving Vera Rubin and other experimentalists. What I think should win Peebles the Nobel Prize is that he, along with a number of other scientists (Edward Harrison, Yakov Zel'dovich, and J. T. Yu) made a very specific prediction about how the cosmic microwave background—which is incredibly uniform—would show tiny little hot and cold spots of certain sizes once we looked hard enough. Sure enough, in the past decade, their prediction has been confirmed by a number of experiments. (Such as the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, or WMAP—which may eventually yield a Nobel for Charles Bennett, David Spergel, and Lyman Page.) Also worthy of mention are Rainier Sachs and Arthur Wolfe, who made a somewhat different (and also recently confirmed) prediction about how dark matter distorts the cosmic microwave background.

Of course, there's a good dose of politics involved. If a candidate has pissed off enough of the wrong people, there's no way he'll win the Nobel, no matter how deserving. There is also Old World vs. New World politics: It'll be very interesting to see whether Geoff Marcy or Paul Butler get to share a Nobel with Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz for the discovery of extrasolar planets.

So what's on tap for this year? I don't think it will be cosmology, as last year's prize went to that field. The Nobel committee seems to want to rotate among the fields of physics, as well as giving prizes for practical inventions and the occasional nod to theorists.

I think that it's high time that some of the work in quantum computation and quantum information theory gets a Nobel. Depending on how the committee divvies it up, it could go to any number of people, such as Ray Laflamme, Charles Bennett, Gilles Brassard, Chris Monroe, David Wineland, Seth Lloyd, Neil Gershenfeld, Ike Chuang, David Deutsch, and Peter Shor. (Shor, in particular, had two big insights that showed that it was both possible to build quantum computers and that they would be useful things to build.) Even more fundamental is Alain Aspect's gorgeous 1982 demonstration of quantum "spooky action at a distance"—he should definitely win the Nobel, perhaps sharing it with Anton Zeilinger, who's doing exquisite experiments that, among other things, probe the border between the quantum realm and the normal macroscopic world we're all familiar with.

I think there will probably be some pressure to give the Nobel to someone in solid-state physics or cold condensed matter physics or perhaps an inventor of some practical device, but if I had to put my money on one person, I think I'd put it on Aspect.

Slate contributor Geoff Brumfiel, a physics reporter for Nature:

The obvious story in physics this year has been the Higgs particle, but it seems unlikely that it will get a prize. For one thing, nominations began before this summer's announcement. For another, we're still not entirely sure what we've found. More data will be released next month and again in December. Without that additional data, it would be unusually daring of the Nobel committee to make an award for anything Higgsish.

Of course, that doesn't rule out making an award to Higgs and others for the theoretical prediction of a Higgs particle, but that would create its own problems. Adrian Cho wrote that there are a number of theorists who all predicted the Higgs at the same time. Since the Nobel can only go to three, it has the potential to be controversial.

The smart money here at Nature Towers is on specially structured materials that do cool stuff to light. As anyone who wears glasses knows, dense materials bend light. The denser the stuff, the more the bend, but it always goes in one direction (toward the "normal," or a line perpendicular to the surface). Metamaterials are cleverly engineered structures that can bend light the opposite way, away from the normal. The most hyped use for them is "cloaking" objects from view, which, while theoretically possible, is probably too tough to be practical anytime soon. But metamaterials and the principles behind them are already finding use in electronics.

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