Today is Dec. 10 (at least, in the United States) – the day the Nobel Prizes are awarded (“http://nobelprize.org/”:http://nobelprize.org/). This day marks the anniversary of the death of Alfred Nobel, a man made wealthy by his dangerous work on the development of dynamite. He established the prize to recognize outstanding work in science. Among this year’s recipients are John Mather and George Smoot, the co-founders of the Cobe Satellite project. This important satellite established with unprecented precision the blackbody spectrum of the cosmic microwave background, a key signature of the big bang. The satellite also discovered the tiny micro-temperature fluctuations, the seeds of galaxies which formed many millions of years later.
The prize is important for a few reasons. It brings into the public eye breakthroughs in extremely fundamental science, discoveries that nobody would otherwise hear about. It engages the media, the scientists, and the public all for one event.
The prize is fundamentally unimportant to science. We do science because we have broad or specific questions that we want to answer. Sometimes those questions are important, but not grand. There are a lot of people in physics toiling away on particulars that are not “worthy” of the Nobel Prize, but which nonetheless captivate and excite the community. There are two large dangers in rewarding research with money and fame. The first is that students will avoid important questions for “sexy science”, and the second is that people will hang all their joys on the possibility of receiving the prize. These only serve to overcrowd individual topics, and create disappointment complexes in scientists taught to expect tangible rewards instead of the critical reward of discovery.