Thought Experiments


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.


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.

Tell us what you think on Twitter, Facebook, or email.


Kate Becker

    In a parallel universe, Kate Becker is senior researcher for NOVA and NOVA scienceNOW and a blogger for Inside NOVA. In this universe, she is your host here at The Nature of Reality, and it is her mission to blow your mind with physics. Kate studied physics at Oberlin College and astronomy at Cornell University. You can also follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

    • Anonymous

      Let’s hope that point 5 — at least the first half — is a historical curiosity, and doesn’t represent good advice for future laureates.

    • Mabel

      #5 is completely sexist and it disgusts me. I cannot believe the author put “just kidding” on supercar but not on #5. This is in the complete opposite direction of women’s movement for equality and encouraging more diversity in STEM. Be a man? The author should be ashamed of herself.

      • The_Aviator

        the author makes no value judgement about the merit of research conducted by women in physics. the author simply presents a staggering fact and a reasonable conclusion that could be drawn from it.

      • Anonymous

        Thank you for your comment. My goal was to draw attention to the regrettable dearth of women among physics laureates, and absolutely not to discourage women from pursuing STEM. Personally and as a member of the NOVA team, I am committed to increasing diversity in the STEM fields,
        and look forward to the day when the ranks of Nobel winners reflect the diversity of our world.

      • C

        sensitive much?

      • John Ford

        the author is a woman and your a woman, she cant be sexist commenting to her own, sexism is when one of an opposite gender discrimates against another. she’s making a simple fact that the majority of nobel prize winners and intellectuals in general are men. name 10 well known awesome women scientists..see if you can get more than 20 people to recognize sounds like your more of a sexist than she is.

    • Sampan

      Be a man means you will have to know the tricks of winning Nobel.For example J.C Bose after inventing radio signal detection device made it clear than he won’t patent for his invention,hence he missed the Nobel which went to Braun and Marconi but now IEEE has declared Bose as the pioneer in this field.His student Satyendra Bose said I have received by discovering Bose statistics-10 persons have won Nobel based on his works but he was not even nominated for that prize.Both of those great men belong to my native home Kokata,West Bengal but there are many European physicist who have missed out too because of political reasons.

      • Sampan

        Ok,I must take the name of Jocelyn Bell who missed out 1974 Nobel which was awarded to her research adviser Anthony Hewish but those two who won did their work with their husbands ,specially many people think that Curie got a bonus prize in Physics,but she was a pioneer in radioactivity which came under Chemistry category at that time.

    • sesquiculus

      If more obscure researchers discover something before you did, don’t bother to cite them. As György Inzelt notes in his textbook Conductive Polymers and their Electrochemnistry”, conductive organic polymers had been discovered, developed, and even commercialized well before the winners of the 2000 Nobel chemistry prize (awarded for their “Discovery and development”) rediscovered them. It as if an entire field of research disappeared.

    • floppy01

      Relativity does not exist without a cause, thus relativity resides within an absolute, the absolute foundation of Space and Time.

      Absolute Space And Time, in which the relativistic events occur, can not be detected. But that does not mean that the 4 dimensional container of which relativity resides within does not exist.

      However, if you take into account the existence of absolute Space and absolute Time, along with the constant motion that goes on within it, you soon end up discovering the Length Contraction equation, the Time Dilation equation, the Transformation equations, the Velocity Addition equation, and so forth.

      Thus you discover,…..RELATIVITY, and done so as seen in a step by step manner at…

      However, the absolute foundation, which is the major component of the very cause of relativity, is being completely ignored, thus if you try to get the big prize, THE NOBEL PRIZE, for revealing the cause of relativity, it is 100% COMPLETELY IGNORED !

      So what is the tip to getting around such a problem.

    • Mahtab

      It’s because of people like this author that women were not able to progress as well as they could’ve. You are disgusting. An you know what? The field’s medal was awarded to an Iranian woman 2 days ago. So go die from jealousy.