How to win a Nobel Prize in Physics

By Marcus Wilson 10/10/2011

Well, if I knew that I would be busy doing it. Perhaps you’d be better off asking Perlmutter, Schmidt and Riess who have just won the 2011 prize for their discovery of the ever accelerating expansion of the universe. I love the story I’ve heard (whether it is true or not I don’t know) that, on receiving the phone call from a woman with a Swedish accent, Adam Schmidt at the Australian National University assumed it was a prank from some of his graduate students.

It’s worth a note that while I was an undergraduate, there was still a lot of debate in cosmology as to whether the universe would expand forever or start contracting again – the data available at the time suggested it was close to the critical point between those two options. Not any more.

There’s been a bit of a theme (or two themes) to the Nobel Prizes for physics in the last few years (by which I mean since about 2000). You can split them into two roughly equal groups: (i) Materials (e.g. graphene, giant magneto-resistance, superconductors…) and (ii) Particle physics and Astrophysics (expanding universe, symmetry breaking, microwave background…). Maybe that’s three groups. If you want your prize, those two/three areas seem to be the places to be in. No hope for me then.

The one that stands out as not fitting in with the themes is Glauber / Hall & Haensch’s prize in 2005 for optics, including in Hall and Haensch’s case the development of the optical  ‘frequency comb’ for precision spectroscopy.

An interesting point is that the prizes in recent times are roughly evenly split between those in extremely practical things (often that have changed modern technology and made a lot of money, such as integrated circuits) and those in ‘blue-sky’ things, that have less obvious application. Physics covers a huge spectrum (if I can use that optical word) of research, and the practical stuff and blue-sky stuff both form a part of it. It’s nice to see that both are being recognized in this way. Governments take note.






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