Sunday, October 09, 2011

Nobel Prizes 2011

I was a bit busy last week, with a visitor, posting a paper, etc. so I didn't get to comment on the Nobel prizes.

The dark energy prize is richly deserved (see slides from a colloquium on dark energy I've given a few times; includes above figure). These guys have discovered where most of the energy in the universe is, and may have determined the ultimate fate of the universe on cosmological scales. I note Saul Perlmutter was awarded 1/2 the prize and the other two guys each received 1/4. This may seem like petty credit splitting, but in this case it is appropriate as Perlmutter's group at LBNL have been working on supernova astronomy for a long time trying to get it to work. (Since when I was a grad student!) Perlmutter attributes the original idea to Luis Alvarez, perhaps the greatest experimentalist of the 20th century.

In finding that the universe is on a path to runaway expansion, you had to find type Ia supernovae, which can act as distance markers. How did you get involved with supernova searching?

I was at the University of California at Berkeley for graduate school. One of the heroes here at Berkeley is Luis Alvarez. The tradition that he started is looking for interesting science no matter where it is and then finding tools to do those things. For example, he invented one of the first steady cams.

One of his protégés was my professor, Richard Muller. There was a project to do a superautomated supernova search that Luis Alvarez had suggested to Rich. They had just done one of the first adaptive-optics experiments.


To what do you most attribute your scientific success?

I think the biggest thing is, first of all, being willing to learn things, being willing to pick up a new area, but also just being able to work with other people. Most of these jobs are too big for any one person. You end up trying to find a team of people who are as excited as you are and want to push the technique forward. I'm always struck by the fact that the image of the scientist is as a lone person wearing a lab jacket in the lab by themselves for hours, whereas my sense is that maybe the single most important thing for a scientist, aside from being able to think of good questions, is figuring out good people to work with and enjoying the process of inventing ideas together with other people.

You can add one more Nobel prize to the Berkeley lab collection:

I don't have too much to say about the quasicrystal prize, except that there are several curious aspects (this is mostly second hand stuff I picked up from colleagues): 1. the chemists gave a prize for a physics discovery, and seem to have botched the job: 2. they left out the theorist who was instrumental in convincing people that Shechtman's result was for real (Steinhardt had worked out the theory of quasicrystals out already, and even coined the name!) and 3. Shechtman's group at NIST (where he made the discovery) didn't believe the result and his boss kicked him out!


5371 said...

How long do you think it will be till any fundamental theorist gets the prize for some work done after 1975?

steve hsu said...

Inflationary cosmology could get the prize. The observations already favor it; it's a question of when the committee feels the evidence is strong enough. That work was done in the 1980s (Steinhardt was actually one of the contributors!) and has very significant fundamental implications for the large scale structure and dynamics of the universe. Depending on what we see at LHC, various models of particle physics that extend beyond the standard model could win prizes.

Nano Nymous said...

A question

RKU1 said...

Frankly, I've been amazed that Guth (and perhaps others) didn't already get the prize for Inflation years, perhaps even decades ago.  After all, it's actually the sort of "big, astonishing, important" idea the award is tailor-made for, and it came out thirty years ago.  As near as I can tell from the "chatter" I occasionally encounter, it's been very widely accepted as correct during almost that entire period, and long-since incorporated into all major cosmological models.  I'd think the combination of all those other factors should overcome the difficulty of explicit experimental verification.

All I can say is it's a good thing that Guth was so young when he developed it, or there might have been a serious miscarriage of scientific justice.

5371 said...

Finding the Higgs boson surely wouldn't lead to any prize fulfilling my time criterion, but I suppose finding signs of supersymmetry might. I hope that if inflation does get recognised some day, Russians don't get robbed again.

MtMoru said...

Again celebrating very smart people who've thrown away their lives. One of the things that grown ups learn is that being interesting and being worth spending time on aren't the same.

There should be one prize every year for billions. The Methuselah Mouse Prize is a good start. Whatever science does not assist in this effort is waste and for children.

Sorry I haven't been able to get my hate on here for a while.

David Santos said...


Why take it out on a Chinese scientist? Blame the Nobel committee. Blame Sweden. 

5371 said...

Hope I never grow up then ...

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