Thought Experiments

07
Oct

8 Ways to Win the Nobel Prize in Physics

It’s 5 a.m. and you’re sitting by the phone, hoping for that “magic call” from Stockholm that bears the news you’ve waited so long for: You’ve won the Nobel Prize in Physics! Whom will you tell first? How will you celebrate? And what color Bugatti should you buy with your prize money?1 But while you’re mentally debating the relative merits of Obsidian Black and Italian Red, you realize that the sun has come up and the phone still sits silent: You’ve been passed over once again. How can you turn things around in 2013? With the announcement of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics expected to come on Tuesday, October 8, we consulted with winners and watchers of the Nobel Prize to prepare this helpful guide to nabbing your very own physics Nobel.

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Albert Einstein during a lecture in Vienna in 1921, the year of his Nobel Prize. Image credit: Ferdinand Schmutzer, via Wikimedia

  1. Think big: What kind of discovery is most likely to earn Nobel laurels? Prize-winning work “runs the gamut” from basic to applied science and from lone-wolf labor to cast-of-thousands collaborations, says Adam Riess, who, along with Saul Perlmutter and Brian Schmidt, received the award in 2011 for the discovery of the accelerating expansion of the universe. Says Riess: “I think the key is its importance must be fundamental, generally involving new physics.”
  2. Do an experiment: Physicists are often divided into two camps: theorists, who need nothing more than paper, pencil, and their prodigious brains to do their work, and experimentalists, who toil and tinker with arcane equipment in their attempts to prove (or disprove) the ideas thought up by the theorists. So, which group bags more Nobels? In The Nobel Prize: A History of Genius, Controversy, and Prestige, science historian Burton Feldman lands firmly on the side of experiment. Tallying up the winners from 1901 through 1999, he finds that experimentalists scooped up 87 awards while the theorists made do with a measly 51. Even Einstein, despite a bushel of nominations, was rejected year after year for the Nobel because his relativity theories were just that—theories. (He eventually won the 1921 prize, for his work on the photoelectric effect.) Experimentalists have continued to dominate in the last decade, with a few notable exceptions, like the 2004 award, which went to David Gross, David Politzer and Frank Wilczek for developments in the theory of the strong force, one of the fundamental forces of physics.
  3. Keep it in the family: Marie Curie shared the prize with her husband, Pierre Curie, and five father-son pairs have won the award (though only William and Lawrence Bragg won it in the same year for work done collaboratively). As David Kaiser, a physicist and science historian at MIT, puts it: To win the award, “one should select one’s parents carefully.”
  4. You can’t choose your family, but you can choose your thesis advisor: “As the great sociologist of science Harriet Zuckerman demonstrated years ago, among all the Nobel laureates who conducted their prize-winning research in the United States (at least up through 1972), more than half had been mentored early in their careers by other Nobel laureates,” reports Kaiser. “The proportion was highest—nearly 2/3—among Nobel Prize-winners in physics.”
  5. Be a man—and be eligible for the AARP: Of the 193 winners of the Nobel Prize in Physics, only two (Marie Curie and Maria Goeppert-Mayer) were female. Average age: 55.
  6. Get lucky: “They key to winning the Prize, I believe, is to be extremely lucky,” says Riess. Of course, as any fortune cookie can tell you, good luck alone isn’t enough: it has to be combined with the day-in, day-out hard work that often obscures the serendipitous path to the breakthrough. But it is possible to “court serendipity” by being open to surprising and unexpected new findings. The Institute of Physics has compiled a list of just such lucky breaks. There’s Jocelyn Bell’s “accidental” discovery of pulsars—radio signals so uncannily regular that she momentarily thought they might be beacons from an alien civilization. (They weren’t. Incidentally, Bell didn’t get the prize; it went to her supervisor, Anthony Hewish. See #5, above.) And then there’s the first detection of the radio buzz we now know as the cosmic microwave background radiation, which future Nobel laureates Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson chalked up to pigeon droppings before they realized it was actually an electromagnetic echo of the Big Bang.
  7. Be patient: The Nobel committee is not much for instant gratification. Though some Nobel prizes come quick on the heels of the work that they honor—the 2010 award, for instance, went to Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov for their work on graphene, just six years after the material was discovered—the prize more often comes a decade or two (or five) after the discoveries are first made. Subramanyan Chandrasekhar, for one, had to wait more than 40 years, and 53 years passed before Ernst Ruska was honored for building the first electron microscope that could out-magnify a traditional optical scope.
  8. Be prepared for life after Nobel: “What happens now to the rest of my life? What comes after this?” said Tsung-Dao Lee, who received the physics prize in 1957, when he was just 31. Indeed, some laureates, particularly those who receive the award early in their careers, founder after making the trip to Stockholm. As Mitchell Wilson put it in a 1969 essay in The Atlantic, “If, before winning the prize, the man has received very few, if any, of the signs of the scientific world’s recognition of the worth of his work, the sudden rise to stardom can completely distort the pattern of the rest of his life.” But Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek, asked to weigh in on how to up your Nobel odds, has a more spirited outlook: “I’m more confident giving this tip, about what to do immediately after winning a Nobel Prize. And that is, you should take some dancing lessons. They’ll pay off handsomely during the festivities.”

1Just kidding; I’m not aware of any Nobel laureates who plunked down their prize money on a supercar. Nobel winners typically spend the purse on serious and practical things, like charitable donations or their children’s college fund. TIME put this impolite question to a handful of winners back in 2009; here are their answers.

Go Deeper
Author’s suggestions for further reading

The Atlantic: How Nobel Prizewinners Get That Way
In this 1969 essay, physicist-turned-novelist Mitchell Wilson profiles prominent winners of the physics Nobel, including his onetime boss, laureate Enrico Fermi.

The Nobel Prize: A History of Genius, Controversy, and Prestige
The late science historian Burton Feldman’s comprehensive history of the prize.

Scientific Elite: Nobel Laureates in the United States
Published in 1977, this book by sociologist Harriet Zuckerman looks at the life and career trajectories of the scientific super-elite.

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Kate Becker

    Kate Becker is the editor of The Nature of Reality, where it is her mission to blow your mind with physics. Kate studied physics at Oberlin College and astronomy at Cornell University, and spent seven years as senior researcher for NOVA and NOVA scienceNOW. Follow her on Twitter and Facebook.