Excitement is building -- at least in science circles -- for the upcoming announcements of the 2014 Nobel Prizes, along with the inevitable speculation about who might be among this year's winners. Jen-Luc Piquant normally eschews this kind of speculation (selection committees work in mysterious and unpredictable ways), but Smithsonian magazine invited me to channel my inner prognosticator and participate in a Google+ hangout discussion on who might win this year's Physics Prize with cosmology postdoc Amanda Yoho (also a co-blogger at Starts With a Bang), Charles Day (Physics Today), and Andrew Grant (Science News). You can watch the hour-long discussion at your leisure, but here are some of my thoughts on the matter, based (in part) on our conversation.
First, let's get one thing out of the way: this year's winners are probably not going to be the members of the BICEP2 collaboration, whose announcement earlier this year that they had detected a signal in the cosmic microwave background radiation indicative of gravitational waves -- and hence providing confirmation of the theory of inflation pioneered by Alan Guth and Andrei Linde 30 years ago -- rocked our collective worlds until doubts were raised as to whether the signal was really just cosmic dust. Alas, that looks like it might indeed be the case, based on the preliminary results from the Planck satellite collaboration announced a couple of weeks ago. The final verdict won't be passed until both sets of data are combined, but (1) it's not looking good for BICEP2 right now, and (2) even if those results are ultimately confirmed (a long shot, frankly), it won't be in time for this year's prizes. I think we all concurred that we wouldn't be surprised if the Planck team copped a Nobel prize in the next few years for its polarization map of the entire sky; prior projects like
WMAP and COBE were so honored, after all. But Planck has yet to release its full dataset; hopefully that will happen by the end of this year, but again, it won't be in time for this year's crop of Nobels.
The catalyst for our Google+ discussion was the annual Thomson Reuters predictions, based primarily on citation data. As Charles Day pointed out, this probably isn't the best method for predicting Nobel prizes, but Thomson Reuters has correctly pegged the winners in four out of the last ten years, so that approach has its merits.
Topological Insulators. For the 2014 Nobel Prize in Physics, Thomson Reuters favors Charles L. Kane, Laurens W. Molenkamp, and Shoucheng Zhang for theoretical and experimental research on the quantum spin hall effect and topological insulators. This is one of those topics I keep meaning to blog about and somehow never get around to it, because despite the lackluster name, topological insulators are a nifty new class of materials that conduct electrical current along the surface but not through the bulk of said materials. (A rough analogy might be a Faraday cage.)
Such materials hold a lot of promise for quantum computing applications, for instance, since they are more resistant to interference, which are hazardous to delicate quantum states necessary for quantum computing. Sure, there are still some issues with impurities, and ideally you'd want to combine topological insulators with superconductors, which is no easy feat. But this one of the hottest areas in materials physics at the moment.
So it's certainly a strong contender for a Nobel Prize, particularly since last year's prize was for particle physics (the discovery of the Higgs boson). Assuming the Nobel selection committee tries to spread the love among various physics disciplines, it might be time again to honor something in the materials realm. My only caveat: it might still be too soon. There was some grumbling when graphene researchers won the 2010 Nobel physics prize. Part of that was the usual bickering over who was unfairly passed over for the prize, but there was also a sense in some quarters that it was a bit premature. That said, there's no rule dictating a certain amount of time must pass before the awarding of a Nobel Prize. So topological insulators could totes snag the honors this year.
The runners-up in the Thomson-Reuters list were ferroelectric memory devices (potentially useful to build a type of memory that is as fast as RAM but sticks around even when the electricity is turned off) and multiferroic materials, and nanowire photonics and the creation of the first nanowire nanolaser. Both are well-established fields of research with practical applications of the fundamental breakthroughs well underway. I'd personally root for topological insulators for a materials or condensed matter contender, but both these subjects are equally deserving of the honor.
My pick, just to mix things up a bit, was something a bit more esoteric and theoretical: Wojciech (pronounced Voy-check) Zurek, for his many contributions to the fundamentals of quantum mechanics, most notably decoherence and the no-cloning theorem, which forbids the creation of identical copies of an unknown quantum state, with critical implications for quantum computing, quantum teleportation, and quantum information in general. Decoherence is kind of related to the Schroedinger's Cat thought experiment, specifically the observation question -- the notion that once we "look" inside the box, the wave function collapses into a single reality (the cat is either dead or alive).
Einstein once asked Niels Bohr whether Bohr truly believed that the moon is not really there when we don’t happen to be looking at it. Decoherence answers Einstein’s question. It's like a built-in fail-safe mechanism, ensuring that a large object made of billions of subatomic particles rarely behaves in a truly coherent fashion. It is extremely difficult to get more than a few atoms to vibrate together, perfectly synchronized, because of interference. In the real world, objects interact constantly with the environment, and decoherence occurs instantaneously. So Schrödinger’s macroscopic-yet-quantum cat is an impossible beast. The slightest interaction with the outside world causes the wave function of super-imposed states to gradually fall out of synch, or decohere. The outside interference constitutes an act of measurement. The moon does not exist in isolation. It interacts with everything around it, including the Sun. The rain of photons from the sun’s rays onto the moon’s surface constitutes a “measurement”: the photons interact with the particles that make up the moon, collapsing their respective wave functions and causing decoherence. This gets rid of any super-imposed states, with no need for conscious human interaction. It's ingenious, really. Definitely Nobel-worthy.
Neutrino Oscillations. Charles Day's pick for this year's physics Nobel Prize is the detection of neutrino oscillations. Neutrino-related work has been honored before (cf. the 2002 Nobel Prize in Physics), with the cracking of the case of the missing solar neutrinos; they weren't missing, they were changing "flavors" (they come in three varieties). But Day feels the further direct observations that neutrinos can change flavors (i.e., oscillate) is worthy of a prize all its own.
As recently as 1998, physicists still wondered whether neutrinos might have a tiny bit of mass, which could dramatically alter scientists’ estimation of the overall mass of the universe, because they are so plentiful. This in turn has implications for estimating the rate of expansion of the universe. And if neutrinos do have mass, they could oscillate and change flavors over time as they traveled through space. For instance, would it be possible for a muon neutrino to change into a tau neutrino via oscillation?
That question was answered with a resounding yes in 1998, when scientists with the Super-Kamiokande detector in Japan announced they had found evidence for oscillations, and hence mass, in atmospheric neutrinos. In 2010, scientists with the OPERA experiment at Gran Sasso National Laboratory reported that they had found four instances of the telltale signature of the tau neutrino among a stream of billions of muon neutrinos generated at nearby CERN -- the first direct observation of a neutrino transforming from one type into another. And in 2013, the T2K experiment, which uses the same facility as the Super Kamiokande detector, found evidence for oscillation between mu neutrinos and electron neutrinos.
Quantum Teleportation. Andrew Grant went for IBM's Charles Bennett (among others) for groundbreaking work on quantum teleportation and quantum information. Per the IBM Website:
"In 1993 an international group of six scientists, including IBM Fellow Charles H. Bennett, confirmed the intuitions of the majority of science fiction writers by showing that perfect teleportation is indeed possible in principle, but only if the original is destroyed. [Cf. no cloning.] In subsequent years, other scientists have demonstrated teleportation experimentally in a variety of systems, including single photons, coherent light fields, nuclear spins, and trapped ions. Teleportation promises to be quite useful as an information processing primitive, facilitating long range quantum communication (perhaps ultimately leading to a "quantum internet"), and making it much easier to build a working quantum computer. But science fiction fans will be disappointed to learn that no one expects to be able to teleport people or other macroscopic objects in the foreseeable future, for a variety of engineering reasons, even though it would not violate any fundamental law to do so."
Discovery of the Tetraquark. Andrew also favors the discovery of the tetraquark as a possible contender for this year's physics prize, although he acknowledged it, too, might be a bit too recent to snag the 2014 award. Granted, Japanese scientists found hints of such an unusual particle -- dubbed Z(4430) -- back in 2003, and again in 2007, although it wasn't clear whether it was a tetraquark or more akin to a mini-molecule of two orbiting mesons. But then the Large Hadron Collider found the particle in its data earlier this year, confirming that the particle is unambiguously a tetraquark. It was thought to be impossible; quarks only come in twos and threes. Right? Apparently not. So the tetraquark is prompting a thorough re-examination of (and a fierce debate about) the nuances of our model for quark interactions.
Vera Rubin and Dark Matter. You'll note that all the above work was done by male physicists -- not all that surprising, since physics is still a male-dominated field. But Amanda Yoho and I both are rooting for a woman to be honored, and astrophysicist Vera Rubin is our top pick. As I wrote back in 2010 for Discovery News, "There have been so few women scientists honored by the Nobel Committee over the years: only two have won the physics prize, Marie Curie in 1903 and Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963. Rubin is eminently deserving of the honor, and frankly, she’s not getting any younger."
Specifically, her methodical observations (working with
the late Kenneth Kent Ford) that the outermost stars in most galaxies move at the same speed as the innermost ones -- in seeming defiance of the laws of gravity -- provided the first (indirect) observational evidence of dark matter proposed by Fritz Zwicky back in the 1930s.
Frankly, it's a little surprising that Rubin remains a non-laureate: what is the Nobel selection committee waiting for? Direct detection of dark matter particles? That could be awhile, since every time physicists think they're getting close to such detection, some new contradictory result from one of the many experiments throws a wrench in the works. Amanda made a strong case (during the discussion and after on Twitter) that this shouldn't keep her from winning. Rubin observed a critical anomaly, much like the observation that our universe's expansion is accelerating, likely due to dark energy, which snagged a Physics Nobel Prize in 2011.
That's the gist of our discussion and the various predictions. But honestly, this is just speculation. It's fun, but we're all just waiting to see what the Nobel selection committee decides when the announcements go public. Feel free to indulge in your own speculation in the comments.