Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The Dilemma of Attribution

It's been a great decade for Nobel Prizes in theoretical physics. In 1999 it was awarded to 't Hooft and Veltman "for elucidating the quantum structure of electroweak interactions in physics", in 2003 to Abrikosov Ginzburg and Leggett "for pioneering contributions to the theory of superconductors and superfluids", to Gross, Wilczek and Politzer in 2004 "for the discovery of asymptotic freedom in the theory of the strong interaction", and in 2005 to Roy Glauber "for his contribution to the quantum theory of optical coherence" (that contribution amounts to creating, out of the pretty much the whole cloth, my field of theoretical quantum optics and proceeding to do a frightening amount of the interesting work in it).

This year's prize is more cause for excitement since it goes to three more theorists: Yoichiro Nambu "for the discovery of the mechanism of spontaneous broken symmetry in subatomic physics" and to Makoto Kobayashi and Toshihide Maskawa "for the discovery of the origin of the broken symmetry which predicts the existence of at least three families of quarks in nature".

All of these well-deserved prizes recognise wonderful advances in our knowledge. Theoretical physics is an activity undertaken by a relatively small community of researchers and it's in the nature of ideas that often a large number of people have made significant contributions to any major development. When it comes time to award the prize only three names can be up in the bright lights. Those of us who have read enough physics texts to recognise the terms "Nambu-Goldstone boson" and "Cabbibo-Kobayashi-Maskawa matrix" might wish that there were a better way to reward the great ones among us and achieve for them appropriate public recognition.

It's probably fair to guess that David Politzer's Nobel Address got his co-recipients offside from the first paragraph. It does, however, provide a fascinating if bleak assessment of how science really gets done and the challenges facing those who decide on who gets and who does not get a Nobel Prize.

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