Tuesday, December 11, 2012

More new physics prizes

The news today in physics, reported by the New York Times and Peter Woit, is that Yuri Milner, the Russian billionaire physics enthusiast, has announced a new set of prizes for fundamental physics. I wrote a little about the previous award of prizes here. These prizes are somewhat less generous than those announced over the summer (which were worth \$3 million each); this time only Stephen Hawking receives that amount, and the others get a smaller share. Woit typically notes that almost all the non-experimental recipients have some connection to string theory. But the other interesting thing about the new prizes is that in this round, some experimentalists have actually been included. Of course all of them are involved with the LHC at CERN: no surprise there, given Milner's personal interests in physics. What I do find rather noteworthy, however, is the way in which the prizes have been divided.$1 million is to be divided between the current and former ATLAS spokespersons Fabiola Gianotti and Peter Jenni, and another million between CMS current and ex-spokepersons Joe Incandela, Michel Della Negra and Tejinder Virdee. Now I'm not very knowledgeable about the organisational structure or the division of labour in these experiments, but each experiment has roughly 3000 scientists working on it and everything I had read about them in relation to speculation about a possible Nobel award suggested that there was no real way to single out the contribution of any individuals out of these thousands as being especially more worthy than any other.

It does appear that Milner has found a way to do this though: pick the spokesperson elected by the experiment. Now I wonder what the reaction to this is at ATLAS and CMS. Is this regarded as fair? Do the spokespersons really make a bigger contribution to the discovery of the Higgs? I really don't know but I'd be interested to learn what people think. I know some of the readers of this blog are part of the ATLAS and CMS collaborations — if any of you have an opinion, please do share it through the comment box!

Update: Via Shaun in the comments, there is interesting news about what the current spokespersons intend to do with their money. Also, Tommaso Dorigo gives his opinion on the matter here; I have to say my views are rather more in line with those expressed in the comment by Bernhard on that blog.

Less serious update: An anonymous friend in the ATLAS group says "I can't believe Fabiola has had her choice of font vindicated in this way."

1. The truth is somewhere in the middle. One can argue that the entire collaboration should get the prize but, let's face it, some of those at the bottom of the heap were doing something not especially skilled and were there just by luck; a random person from the corridor might have done a better job. On the other hand, giving it to just the leader of a group is obviously unjust in the case of a large collaboration.

Of course, the spokesperson is not chosen randomly, and the spokesperson usually plays a leading role. Still, just the spokesperson is too little.

People have criticized the Nobel rule about limiting it to three people, but would the prize be the same if there were thousands of recipients each year?

For big projects, there is of course a continuum, but on the other hand people familiar with the work know who the officers are and who the enlisted men are. So singling out a few is OK. There is only a problem when one needs 4 instead of 3 (I would have liked to include Bob Kirshner for last years Physics Nobel Prize, but not at the expense of one of the winners), but one has to draw the line somewhere.

Personally, I think more prizes should be given for good work which has resulted from doing something unpopular, taking a personal risk etc. A few hundred thousand is nice but not game-changing for a tenured professor. One can argue that someone already with a good position should be doing good stuff just as a matter of course. Young people working on popular stuff will get chances.

Looking back, I think Sjur Refsdal, say, should have received a Nobel Prize for essentially singlehandedly founding the modern field of gravitational-lens astronomy, despite working essentially in isolation and being misunderstood at the time. Or Bernhard Schmidt, say, who never had a paid position in astronomy and published just one paper but probably did more than any single person since Galileo to revolutionize astronomy.

1. It looks like some of the money given to the LHC yesterday (Gianotti and Jenni's share at least) will be put into a trust to help PhDs and young postdocs: Source.

2. Actually, I think I got the names wrong, make it Fabiola Gianotti and Joe Incandela's share of the money.

3. Shaun: that's good news. I have updated the post to highlight it.

Phillip: I think I agree with you that the rules constraining the award of Nobel Prizes are a bit outdated and make things rather unnecessarily restrictive in some cases. A bit more flexibility and discretion would be nice. But since they are intended as awards for individual scientists who have made contributions to their fields rather than awards honouring discoveries themselves, I think it is appropriate to have some sort of rule to prevent the prize from being given to large collaborations. (Not that there is anything wrong with large collaborations!)

The motivation for these Milner prizes is of course different. In fact as far as I can tell, it seems to come down to very simply a) give prizes to people who work on things that Milner himself likes, and b) generate a lot of publicity. In one sense, fair enough - I don't think that's a great motivation, but it's his money to do what he likes with. I think the overall implications for the field are not 100 per cent positive.