Great physicists are islands of a sort, not mindless screws in an institution
I don't remember the last day when I agreed with Sabine Hossenfelder so entirely. She just wrote a blog post called
Today, the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize went to an organization fighting chemical weapons in Syria. It's an activity I support but I still think that the choice is shallow and tendentious, the organization itself hasn't really achieved much (it's someone else who did), and the very problem is temporary and will soon be forgotten. The list of previous winners of this prize contains some weird entries such as Yasser Arafat, Al Gore, or the IPCC. Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin have been nominated as well, of course. But no decent and intelligent person takes this prize seriously anymore.
We want to talk about science Nobel prizes – for medicine, chemistry, and especially physics – whose nomination and selection process remained unusually careful and rigorous and that managed to maintain a remarkable degree of credibility.
The 2013 Physics Nobel Prize was awarded for the Brout-Englert-Higgs mechanism and the Higgs boson. And because CERN was essential in making us "really sure" that such a particle exists, people were thinking about a Nobel prize for CERN as an institution or a Nobel prize for the director Rolf Heuer and/or the spokespeople of ATLAS and CMS, Fabiola Gianotti and Joe Incandela.
Well, they may still get a Nobel prize in the future. Let me assume that they won't. One justification why the experimenters didn't share the prize was that they found "pretty much the same thing" as Brout, Englert, and Higgs – but 48 years later. So that shouldn't count as an independent discovery at roughly the same time. ;-) Experimenters may still get Nobel prizes but it makes sense to give such prizes for things that they discover before the theorists – or before the moment when good theorists are pretty much certain that the object or effect exists. Be sure that there are lots of examples.
But there's one more fact involved: the experimenters worked in a large team. ATLAS has 3,000 members and CMS has 3,000 members. Let's agree that it's inappropriate to reward the political representatives of the groups, especially if the spokespeople were doing pretty much the same thing as all other conceivable, good enough spokespeople would be doing. Should such groups receive the Nobel prize as groups?
As Sabine reminds us, and I wanted to do exactly the same thing, Alfred Nobel's key last will from 1895 says that each year, one person should get a prize in one of the five disciplines. (Economics isn't among the original prizes; it's just a "memorial Nobel prize".) The first winner in 1901, Wilhelm Röntgen, was indeed one person. But already the winners in 1902 were two: Hendrik Lorentz and Pieter Zeeman. The winners in 1903 were three: Henri Becquerel, Pierre Curie, and Maria Skłodowska-Curie. No, there were not 4 winners in 1904. By 1903, the new tradition was fixed: at most three winners. We could say that the committee pissed on Nobel's grave already in 1902 but in some sense, no one else added any "new urine" afterwards.
A vast majority of winners until 1950 were indeed individuals. It became substantially more popular to choose 2 or 3 winners afterwards.
The fact that the number of winners is bounded from above isn't justified just by Nobel's last will. Regardless of the timing, it has a good independent reason. A rule that forbids or discourages large numbers of winners is needed to preserve the Nobel prize's scarcity. If arbitrarily large groups of winners were possible, the committee would surely be tempted to choose the politically correct solution and give the Nobel prize pretty much to everyone. Such a Nobel prize inflation would make the prize more or less worthless rather quickly. Note that if the prize were divided between members of ATLAS and CMS, each of them would get something like a few dollars. That's not what a prestigious prize was created for. That's what they can get from their salary for 30 minutes. And be sure that the fame per person would drop accordingly – pretty much proportionally. Just think what it does to the Peace Nobel Prize when every piece of stinky excrement shaped e.g. as Michael Mann may boast that he has "pretty much" received a Nobel prize, too.
Sabine even agrees with me about two more points: that there is no reason to make the prizes more inclusive than they were 100 years ago; and that Sean Carroll's claims to the contrary only reveal the fact that he is a hardcore leftist jerk rather than some genuine changes in the society.
A few hours before Sean Carroll, another leftist activist, a chemist named Ashutosh Jogalekar, wrote the same opinions in Scientific American. I saw his article through an application on my Android tablet and it made me upset, especially because about 80% of the SciAm texts accessible through the application were comparably offensive. (They included the interview with Gerard 't Hooft who has claimed for 15 years that quantum mechanics should be replaced by hydrodynamics and kilobytes of similar unrestricted crackpottery.) Only on the PC, I could see that this offensive character of the selection appeared because the application picks blog posts and opinions rather than science news and almost everyone involved with Scientific American has pretty much idiotic opinions about everything so when some room is reserved for such opinions, a catastrophe is inevitable.
Back to the main topic. Carroll and Jogalekar more or less claim that science has become a collective enterprise, Nobel could perhaps not foresee such a change, and the Nobel prize has become outdated or "misleading" for that reason. The only problem with this proposition is that it is nothing more than an ideological piece of junk.
As Sabine correctly says, science has always been a community enterprise in the sense that people were building on insights of others. After all, I add, you probably know who wrote
If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.Yes, it was Isaac Newton; he wanted to point out that his "not quite friend" Robert Hooke was a dwarf. However, even Newton wasn't the first one; the quote has been spotted in the writings of the 12th century neo-Platonist Bernard of Chartres.
For example, during his discovery of the laws of mechanics, Isaac Newton himself depended on the insights by Galileo Galilei about acceleration and kinematics as well as the detailed data on planetary orbits by Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe. I could describe the pre-history in the case of every other insight in physics; that's what the work of historians of science is all about. The work of Newton and everyone else was connected with lots of the intellectual activities of others. That doesn't mean that Newton wasn't a genius; that doesn't mean that Newton wasn't an island (yes, I disagree with Carroll's title as well; islands are connected with each other as well, via the crust).
So it is complete bullshit that the dependence of scientific insights on the work of others is a new development that emerged sometime in the 20th century. It has always been an aspect of the scientific process. It was undoubtedly the case during Nobel's lifetime, too. He still decided that the five prizes should go to five individuals each year in total.
Nothing qualitative has changed about the interrelationships between the work of various scientists; about the existence of several folks who sometimes claim priority in a discovery (think about Newton and Leibniz and their Battle of Calculus – and dozens of other ancient examples). So is there anything that has changed? Well, one thing that has changed is that a much larger percentage of people considering themselves "scientists" are hardcore left-wing activists, too. This is a reflection of the government-funded character of scientific research since the mid 20th century. Has there been a change in the truly scientific issues surrounding the scientific process? The LHC is surely the first experiment that employs 6,000 experimental physicists, isn't it?
Well, maybe, but this is an artifact of a new status of the institutionalized scientific research: people pay large groups because the overall number of scientists is much larger than it was 100 years ago. Big Science is something that spread along with the Big Government. But that doesn't mean that the key results started to be made by large groups as well. Quite on the contrary.
I think that if you calculate the percentage of professional researchers who are responsible for the top 10% of breakthroughs as measured by the number of citations, the percentage is actually much lower today than it was 100 or 200 years ago. In other words, institutionalized science contains many more redundant people today. Or, if you will, the claim that science moves forward thanks to individuals – perhaps geniuses – is much more true today than it was centuries ago! After all, note that 6,000 experimenters at CERN weren't even able to achieve what two individuals (Englert and Higgs) easily achieved, namely to make a Nobel-prize-scale discovery. ;-)
So all the arguments claiming to support the idea that the character of the scientific research has transformed since Nobel's lifetime are flawed.
What communists like Carroll and Jogalekar (I had to look the name up again) actually want is to nationalize the contributions to science, much like they want to nationalize (a.k.a. steal) private assets in the economy. (Sabine even uses almost the same words: quite a nice surprise for me.) These two folks and many others have a very simple egotist reason why they want such a thing: they know that they will never make any substantial contribution to science themselves. So the regime in which every member of the community "contributes" the same contribution as every other member would be bound to make their actual contributions look larger than they are.
The very meaning of the prize (and of any meaningful prize) was to discriminate, to bring some extra advantages to those who contributed more to the mankind's assets, intellectual or otherwise. Spreading a prize to everyone means to abolish it. If something is owned by everyone, it's like if it is owned by no one.
One more comment. On Tuesday, Frank Wilczek tweeted the following tweet:
Frank Wilczek is surely right when it comes to the proposition he wrote explicitly. A prize only conveys some "discrete", and therefore inaccurate, information about the continuous world we live in. However, such a discrete prize may still be more meaningful than continuous prizes because even continuous prizes would be likely to be highly inaccurate; because accuracy isn't the only feature through which prizes play a positive role; and because of some other considerations I will sketch below.
So I want to argue that Wilczek is wrong about the key claim he writes in between the Twitter lines, namely that it's bad that the prizes are discrete.
Our one-day Higgs Nobel poll before the Tuesday prize gave the following results:
(Too bad I didn't include Migdal and Polyakov who independently discovered the Brout-Englert-Higgs mechanism as 19-year-old Soviet kids.)
I think that this distribution is surprisingly well-informed. These results are a nontrivial piece of evidence that the TRF readers know what they're doing when they're pressing buttons.
Imagine what would happen if the Nobel prize money were divided to the percentages that exactly match the poll above. Carl Hagen would have only received 0.5% of the Nobel prize money. Would it be OK to call him a Nobel prize winner? A prize that wouldn't allow us to answer similar simple questions would be far less interesting.
Moreover, all the numbers, despite their being continuous, would be questioned. Anderson fans (and maybe Anderson himself) would protest that Anderson should have deserved a greater proportion of the prize (despite the fact that he had already won this prize). From some perspective, they would have a point. But they would be annoying, too. Similar but less obnoxious ;-) shouting would come from other camps. In a similar setup, people could become sensitive about every single one percent of the Nobel prize. The prize would undoubtedly become much more political in character and the future prizes (or future distribution of prizes) would depend on the candidates' camps' ability to scream.
So Wilczek is surely right that the Yes/No information conveyed by the Nobel prizes fails to quantify the exact contributions that various people have made. But that does not mean that a continuous prize would serve a better job. The prize has some quantization or lottery spirit in it and these features sometimes make it more exciting and interesting. And it largely avoids shouting matches between many camps because most of the conceivable candidates are completely omitted which allows their fans to think that they may get a full-fledged Nobel prize sometime in the future.
There's one more thing that would be wrong about a continuous Nobel prize with many winners. The committee would probably be likely to divide the prizes ever more uniformly. So Higgs wouldn't get 43% of the prize as he would get in our poll. Each candidate may receive close to 1/12. As the committees would be getting increasingly more politically correct, they would be including an increasing number of people and each of them would be getting a decreasing amount of money.
Prizes and awards suck but some prizes – such as the scientific Nobel prizes – suck much less than others. Their adhesion to principles, preservation of scarcity, and ignoring of the communist activists' recommendations is a part of this well-deserved success.
And that's the memo.