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Physicists weigh in on physics’ most famous award.
By Erika K. Carlson | October 13, 2022
Credit: Elia King / APS
Each October, scientists around the world turn their attention to a series of press conferences in Sweden to see who will receive the most famous scientific honor of the year — the Nobel Prize. And though the Nobel Prize is ostensibly a celebration of scientific accomplishments, its influence extends far beyond the scientific community.
“The main benefit of Nobel Prizes is that there is a week every year when science is in the news for sure,” says Gabriela González, an experimental physicist at Louisiana State University, “with radio and TV programs explaining important results of modern science and its implications.”
But this fame can contribute to inaccuracies in the general public’s perception of science, including physics.
Part of the problem is built into the rules of the Nobel Prize: The prize is only awarded once a year, to a maximum of three people per field for the science prizes. “You miss a lot of people who did excellent work that you cannot reward, so there’s some arbitrariness in the whole thing,” says Baha Balantekin, theoretical physicist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.
When the Nobel Prize was established at the turn of the 20th century, most research groups were made up of only a handful of members. “But now, some experimental groups have thousands of members,” Balantekin says. “So that’s a conundrum.” In cases where the Nobel Prize Committee has recognized the work of large research collaborations, such as the 2017 physics prize for the LIGO project to detect gravitational waves from black holes and neutron stars, it has awarded the prize to a few key individuals.
“So you're basically choosing to honor those areas of science where you can cleanly separate a few people's work from the pack,” says Karen Daniels, experimental physicist at North Carolina State University. “And that doesn't necessarily accurately represent how science is done.”
In contrast, some other prominent awards recognize entire collaborations rather than a few representatives. For example, the 2020 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics honored all 347 team members behind the Event Horizon Telescope project that captured the first image of a supermassive black hole.
Many scientists have also expressed concerns about the skewed demographics of Nobel laureates.
“Most of the Nobel Prize winners are recognized many years after their results were obtained, which means they are in general old and male,” says González. “This generates an association for the general public of all current scientists being old and male, which is absolutely not true.”
The demographics of laureates not only presents the public with a warped view of who scientists are, Daniels says, but of what scientists value.
“The Nobel Prize Committee has historically essentially ignored the contribution of both women and people of color and a lot of other underrepresented groups and folks at the intersection of those categories,” says Daniels. Of the more than 200 laureates in physics so far, only four have been women, and only a handful more have been people of color. The people who have received the Nobel Prize in Physics so far have all done great work, Daniels says. “But it's a choice to say that we value decades-old work by one demographic, and I think it's tough to get behind that as the best thing to do with our attention.”
Representing the diverse body of scientists is important not just for the public-facing Nobel, but for less visible prizes awarded by universities and scientific societies as well, many researchers say. These awards, arising from the research community, can bolster scientists’ careers by helping them find new collaborators or more funding. And prizes awarded by representatives of one’s subfield can let recipients feel recognized by their peers, which is “not a small thing,” Balantekin says.
“If we’re not awarding them to a diverse group of scientists, then we’re not only saying that ‘we didn’t value your work, and we didn’t value your membership in our community’ — which is incredibly hurtful — we’re also hurting that person’s career relative to someone who did get the award, who then gets the benefits of it,” Daniels says. “There’s a great ability to do harm when they aren’t handled in a way that is equitable.”
For better or worse, the Nobel Prize offers a unique — and very public — opportunity to celebrate and communicate scientific discovery. Other big prizes in science may emulate aspects of the Nobel, but “none of them really captures the public’s imagination the way the Nobel Prize does,” Balantekin says.
“It reminds people that we should be excited about discovery, and that we are continuing to do exciting science,” Daniels says. “I still actually look forward to finding out who’s gonna get it, because it’s always some cool piece of science. I just really think the process is pretty flawed.”
Erika K. Carlson is a science writer at APS.
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