Friday, March 29, 2013

The Arrogance and Injustices of the Nobel Prize in Physics

Shortly after the turn of the century, Vilhelm Bjerknes published his hydrodynamic theorems regarding circulation.  It turns out that there are strong analogies with regard to this mathematics with some aspects of electromagnetic theory, such that Bjerknes' theorems are relevant even outside the domain of hydrodynamics - the physics of fluids (and meteorology, which can be thought of as a subset of hydrodynamics). 

Bjerknes was acquainted with the Nobel laureate Hendrik Lorentz, who was very much impressed with the work of Bjerknes.  Even with such a famous supporter, however, Bjerknes was not to receive the Nobel Prize in physics.  The history of the prize is that astrophysicists and geophysicists have been systematically eliminated from consideration for the prize in Physics.  While many important findings in astrophysics and geophysics can be argued to be of too narrow a scope to be eligible for the award, this seems notably inappropriate when it comes to Bjerknes' work, which had important impacts outside of geophysics and even outside of hydrodynamics.

Subsequently, it turns out that Carl Gustaf Rossby was also mentioned as a potential recipient of the Nobel Prize in some circles.  Unfortunately, I can find no documentation of that, nor can I track down what I heard about that episode.  At some point long ago, someone (I don't recall who) told me that not only was Rossby eliminated from consideration, but it was rumored that there was an unwritten rule within the prize selection committee that no meteorologist would ever even be considered for such a distinction.  This story may or may not be apocryphal.  I'd appreciate any information about that that anyone can offer!

But the main injustice of the exclusion of meteorologists from the prize is the case for Edward N. Lorenz, the person who was the first to recognize the sensitive dependence on initial conditions of nonlinear dynamical systems.  That this discovery would be made by a meteorologist isn't particularly surprising, given the challenges associated with weather forecasting.  What's important is that the theory he first documented, now often referred to as "chaos theory" is widely recognized to be important in any field where the governing processes are nonlinear, which includes most of science, including not only physical science, but biological science, and even social science!!

Now that Lorenz has died, it's no longer possible for him to receive the award - it isn't awarded posthumously.  This is a great stain on the record of the selection committee for the Nobel Prize in Physics.  They have shamed themselves by missing the opportunity to recognize one of the most important scientific discoveries of the 20th Century - Chaos Theory - which surely is on a par with both Relativity Theory and Quantum Physics in terms of far-reaching impact.  The enormous injustice of not awarding a Nobel Prize to Lorenz can no longer be rectified but it does serve to put the Nobel Prize in Physics in a shameful light!  They are extremely arrogant, evidently, despite being presented on a daily basis with the humbling experience of trying to understand the natural world.

I had the opportunity to meet Ed Lorenz on two separate occasions - Ed Lorenz was a wonderful man, easy to talk to, and who wasn'ot particularly impressed with himself, despite his having made many exceedingly important contributions in addition to Chaos Theory.  As discussed here, he likely wasn't particularly bothered by not receiving a Nobel Prize.  He certainly received a lot of awards, and deservedly so.  For Ed Lorenz, though, the work itself clearly was all the reward he really cared about.  This makes him such an awesome role model for aspiring young scientists.  The lack of a Nobel prize in no meaningful way detracts from the valuable legacy his career left us.  It only brings shame on the prize selection committee!


Jim LaDue said...

The Nobel commission already lost it with me when they awarded the peace prize to Obama before he even did anything. I'm not sure they regret that decision or not but I could've thought of more deserving nominees. Beyond their silly criteria is also that the media treats the Nobel prize as some pinnacle of success and yet nobody reports on the fact that entire disciplines are banned from being considered.

Edward Saint-Ivan said...

Nothing compares with the hubris of the 1990 Nobel Prize in Medicine that left out Robert A.Good. Good's unforgivable sin against scholarly medicine was laid out in the book "The Patchwork Mouse" but nobody considered the possibility Thomas might have skeletons in his closet.
In 2001 The Seattle Times did a series about experiments at Fred Hutchinson that illustrate the shortsightedness of the Nobel Prize Committee.