October 8, 2013 | 6
The 2013 Nobel Prize for physics was awarded today to two very deserving individuals – Peter Higgs and Francois Englert. But as is rapidly turning out to be the case, the Nobel Prize – and other prizes for that matter – are finding themselves increasingly out of sync with the way science actually works these days. What they do recognize is worthy enough, but the sum total of what they don’t recognize is exponentially increasing.
The Nobel Prize was established by Alfred Nobel 113 years ago, a time when science was very different. Individuals made discoveries, usually using equipment costing a few hundred dollars. A few countries mainly in the West were responsible for almost all of cutting-edge science. A formal system for federal funding of science was non-existent, and most scientists worked for a select few universities which, combined with a network of philanthropic organizations and individuals, disproportionately showered funds and prestige on these select few individuals. It was thus a time when lone minds still held considerable sway over the frontiers of science.
How times have changed. Although brilliant individuals still populate the ranks of science, almost every major scientific discovery is now recognized as a team effort. You are as likely to find the potential for an important scientific breakthrough in China as in the US. There will always be a few bright minds who conspicuously contribute ideas and inspiration, but the days when a lone genius toiled alone are virtually gone, except in some rarefied fields like pure mathematics. These days individuals simply have to network and collaborate across state and national boundaries, if for no other reason to take advantage of federal and international funding of science which is now the norm rather than the exception. In addition, communication technology has made the efforts of individual researchers coalesce into a seamless whole so that it can be very hard to say who contributed what idea.
There is little doubt that Alfred Nobel would not have predicted or even recognized this model of scientific discovery in the twenty-first century. And personally I find it very likely that, had he lived, he would have had the terms of his will changed to more accurately reflect reality.
Last year after a Higgs-like particle was discovered, the editors of Scientific American appealed to the Nobel Foundation to start granting the prize to teams and organizations; there is actually nothing in Nobel’s will that prevents this. Although the logistics of this credit-sharing may not be easy, I think it is an eminently sensible idea whose importance is overdue and really driven home by this year’s award. Firstly, especially this year’s prize was the result of many ideas being “in the air” at the same time, specifically in the year 1964. There have of course been times in the history of science when you may find someone coming up with something brand new independently of others – Einstein’s general relativity comes to mind – but that was absolutely not the case here. At least six individuals had the ideas that Higgs and Englert had. Plus the Nobel Laureate P. W. Anderson had the general idea a few years before, as explicated in this post by mathematician Peter Woit. It’s pretty clear that the Higgs boson was not the result of an isolated epiphany on Higgs’s and Englert’s parts. This discovery, unusually so compared to some others, was decidedly the work of many people.
And yet in spite of these complexities, as Woit puts it, the Nobel Prize is stuck in the early twentieth-century “great man” model, the one where one or two brilliant men or women disproportionately contribute to a discovery. This leads them to look for a few great men even in cases where there are more likely to be several less-great-but-still-substantial men and women. Firstly of course, it’s not even any number of great men, it’s exactly three or less. And as Mark Jackson’s post amply documents, this has led to several very significant omissions over the years, from physicist Freeman Dyson to chemist Gabor Somorjai to – just this year – biologist Richard Scheller who had shared two other major awards with two of the laureates. But more importantly, in no other aspect of the prize is the “great man” syndrome more apparent than in the failure to recognize the experimental teams at CERN, without whom there in fact would have been no Higgs-related Nobel (although some of us hope they will be separately recognized in the near future). The great man model will almost always be unfair to experimentalists in the ensuing years. Here’s Woit listing the problems:
The first is that this was foremost an experimental achievement, but the experimentalists and their work remains unrecognized. The thousands of physicists and engineers of CERN, LHC and ATLAS have accomplished something amazing by working together, but this makes them somehow ineligible for the Nobel. As far as the Nobel goes they make the mistake of running their collaborations relatively democratically, without a “great man” (or “great woman”) who could stand out and be awarded a prize.
Another issue with today’s choice is that if you do want to emphasize a model of scientific research where advances come from a specific “great man” theorist, in this case they’ve left out the greatest one involved. The specific model tested at the LHC was not that of Englert and Higgs, but the one that Weinberg and Salam already got a prize for. The new prize is for the general mechanism, but this is something that was first understood by Philip Anderson a couple years before Englert and Higgs. For some details of the history, see here. The argument is often made that Anderson’s model was not relativistic, but this is a phenomenon for which relativity is not relevant, something which Anderson understood.
Not every discovery will be as fraught with issues of multiple simultaneous contributions as the Higgs, but in the age of collaborative, big data-based and highly networked scientific discovery this will very likely be the case more often than not.
Now of course we might ask, do we really care? Not just physicists but anyone who has read any of the several excellent popular books on the Higgs – I will single out Sean Carroll’s book in particular – will realize how much more complicated reality is. But the fact is that the public at large still does not; if they did then Carroll’s book might have happily seen sales comparable to those of “The Secret”. They instead see a lot of complexity and credit spread across multiple individuals, teams and decades boiled down to a simple list of two or three names. Their faith in the “great men and women” of science is reaffirmed. They think that we are still living in the age of Darwin and Einstein, which we are not. They remain ignorant of the radically changing nature of scientific discovery which preserves the old elements but adds many news ones. This is a cause for concern, because it’s the same public that’s going to fund the science leading to discoveries like the Higgs. It is unlikely that they will support the right model of science if they are constantly shown the wrong one. This is a message which I think the Nobel Foundation should seriously ponder.