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Tom Siegfried

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Top 10 physicists with no Nobel

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While a lot of people are busy predicting who will win Nobel Prizes this week, it occurred to me that it would be easier to predict who won’t get the physics prize because they’re dead and therefore no longer eligible. Plus there are those who deserve it and are still alive but probably won’t get it because the Nobel guys don’t seem to like theorists very much.

In any case, I’m limiting my list to scientists I’ve actually interviewed, which of course is not one of the Nobel committee’s criteria.

10. John Bahcall
He died in 2005, three years after his collaborator Ray Davis won a Nobel for recording how many neutrinos come out of the sun. That was a big deal because Davis found fewer neutrinos than there should have been. Of course, nobody would have known it was such a big deal if Bahcall hadn’t first figured out how many neutrinos there should have been.

9. Peter Shor
OK, he’s a mathematician, and the Nobel committee doesn’t like mathematicians, either. But Shor launched a major physics movement when he proved, in 1994, that quantum computers could crack the code that everybody from banks to spies uses to keep their data secure. Physicists have been working on figuring out how to build quantum computers ever since, and journalists can now write a lot more stories about obscure physics by noting that it could someday be put to use in quantum computers. Shor is still alive, so still eligible for the Nobel, except that he’s a mathematician.

By the way, I interviewed Shor only briefly, but it was enough to learn that he made his discovery without having seen the Robert Redford movie Sneakers, in which a mysterious code-breaking box played a major role. It did in the film exactly what Shor proved that a quantum computer could do.

8. David Schramm
Schramm died in a private plane crash (he was a pilot) in 1997. He was a pioneer in understanding the creation of light chemical elements in the Big Bang and their importance in understanding the nature of dark matter in the universe. He was also a Greco-Roman wrestler who reached the finals in the 1968 Olympic trials. I interviewed him a few months before he died. I still have the tape somewhere.

7.  Edward Witten
He’s still alive, but will probably never get the prize because his theoretical work was a century or so ahead of its time. It will be a long time before experimentalists catch up. Witten is known primarily for his work on superstrings, but his work has illuminated many areas of physics and he has been one of the top intellectual leaders of the theoretical physics world for three decades.

6. Andrei Linde and 5. Alan Guth
They are both alive and might actually get the prize someday. Guth conceived the idea of an explosive burst of ultrafast expansion, called inflation, at the beginning of the universe, in 1980, and Linde was a key player in developing details of the theory. In recent years measurements of the cold background radiation permeating the universe have largely confirmed the predictions of inflation theory, so the Nobel committee really has no good excuse not to give Guth and Linde the prize.

4. Rolf Landauer
Landauer died in 1999. In 1961, he formulated what is known as Landauer’s principle, which states that in computational processes energy is used up by erasure of information. That principle has been at the foundation of the modern field of the physics of computation. If Landauer were alive, he should have shared the prize with:

3. Charles Bennett
Bennett, Landauer’s IBM colleague, showed how to compute without using up energy at all, by keeping every step reversible so information was never actually erased. Bennett has also been a key intellectual leader in the realm of quantum computing and quantum information theory, and was one of the originators of quantum cryptography and quantum teleportation. Give him the damn prize already.

2. John Archibald Wheeler
Wheeler, who died in 2008, was widely known for coining the term “black hole” and played a leading role in establishing its relevance to astrophysics. He also deserved a Nobel for collaborating with Niels Bohr on the theoretical explanation of nuclear fission.

Once the actual existence of black holes was confirmed in the late 1990s, it would have been a good idea to give the prize to Wheeler and:

1. Stephen Hawking
Hawking remains eligible, and his early work on the thermodynamics of black holes is certainly deserving — it opened up a new realm of understanding the universe. If the committee does give him the prize, he should share it with Jacob Bekenstein, another major contributor to the understanding of black hole thermodynamics. But I’ve only interviewed Bekenstein over the phone. (And OK, I never really interviewed Hawking. But I had lunch with him once in Aspen with half a dozen other physicists, and that’s close enough.)

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