Author’s forward: I wrote this not because I agree or disagree with the choice of a particular Nobel prize winner. I wrote this because I was sick to death of the tone of the discussion about why Nobel prizes, in any field, are awarded. I’ve heard a lot of horrible things in the past few days. Much of it came from the mouths of people I respect. This is my own attempt to make sense of this moment and of the feelings and mis-givings of other people.
Millie gets the Nobel prize
“He only got it because he’s black.”
Millie looked uncomfortably across the room at the Duke. He was sitting in his cubicle, hands knitted behind his head and his feet up on the desk. A pile of books and papers lay neatly placed next to his feet, and his eyes were focused on the glass dome window in the ceiling of the Bullpen.
Since nobody said anything (in fact, the air had gone quite still), the Duke sweetened the pot. “I wonder when they’ll put him back in his collar and take him back to the plantation?”
At this, three chairs slid back very suddenly and Millie, without realizing it, found herself standing over the Duke threatening to break his jaw. The fury was so fast and so blinding, the two sets of hands that had pulled the Duke out of his chair and down to the floor paused. Millie’s fist paused. The whole room was still again.
“I was kidding guys, just kidding. I wanted to get a rise out of you. Rise risen, I say,” the Duke quipped, a half-smile gracing his lips.
The hands dropped him to the floor and Millie uncocked her fist. The air thinned a little in the Bullpen. It was Aneesh who spoke next. “What the fuck, man? What’s your fucking problem, you dumb shit? We’re trying to study for the goddamn mid-term and all you can do is slouch around spouting your white racist bullshit?”
“I already studied,” said the Duke. His half-smile got half-smilier.
The Duke was smart, so he always found himself with free time on his hands. This meant he got bored, and when he got bored he made up stuff to do. That something usually meant tormenting those around him, dragging them out of their studies, into a fight, and into that “B” they never wanted.
Millie knew this. It was why they had dated, why the Saturdays had been so much more fun than they were when she was just studying. But the Duke got bored with that too, and when he turned to tormenting her she had ended the relationship and moved her cubicle as far across the Bullpen as she could manage.
“This day is fucking ruined,” Aneesh pronounced. He walked across the room and slammed his books shut.
Millie tried to glare at him softly, encouraging him with a look to re-open the books. “No way, Millie,” Aneesh said out loud, “I am not going to waste my Saturday with this . . . ”
At this point, a string of no-doubt colorful Hindi came pouring of of Aneesh’s mouth as he pointed at the Duke. He then stormed from the Bullpen.
The Duke seemed proud of himself, so he got back in his chair and threw his feet back on the desk. “Seriously, guys, I don’t see why they gave the Nobel Prize for that claptrap. There are far more important things going on in this world that deserve recognition. This had to be a mercy prize.”
Millie took it upon herself to engage with the Duke, since she was also getting tired of this. “Just because it wasn’t in particle physics doesn’t mean it wasn’t important work, Thad.”
“They wanted to send a signal, Millie, that stringing a bunch of cable together and playing around with FPGAs is more important than fundamental physics. Signal received. You gotta admit, the color of his skin probably helped.”
This time Millie decked him. The Duke went down and his chair flipped over on top of him. She marched out of the Bullpen and ran down the stairs to the Mathematics department. This was her hiding spot, where she went for tea or coffee whenever she wanted to escape her insufferable peers. Too many physics graduate students all fighting for attention from the top faculty wore her down. Mathematics was her escape.
She wandered down a half-lit corridor into the lounge. Day-old donuts sat in a box off to the side. She flipped open the pink lid and pulled out a stale glazed. A hoddle of coffee invited her, so she pulled a community mug down from the small shelves above the sink and drained some of the jet fuel into the cup.
She settled into one of the orange couches in a corner of the Mathematics lounge. The room was an open square, occasionally used for small seminars but mainly intended as a big space for casual meetings and studying. Windows, stretching from floor to ceiling, adorned one of the walls. Furniture was scattered throughout the room, mostly 30-year-old sofas arranged in U-shapes. Coffee tables were arranged in the open space between the couches, providing a surface for feet, or books, or cups of coffee.
Millie leaned back against the couch. The lounge lights were dimmed and she stared out the windows across the city. Math and sciences were located at the top of a hill. The campus stretched out below the hill, and from this fourth-floor vantage she could see down the campus and into the city beyond. A gray ceiling of heavy clouds hung over everything, a reminder of the unstoppable rain that portended the coming of a miserable winter. The dim lights, the gray and sunless sky, provided a calming mood. Anyone looking for her wouldn’t see her sitting in this corner, and she was content to just remain in the corner and be ignored.
“Millie,” came the heavily accented voice of her friend, Aneesh. She turned her head slowly and saw him standing in the middle of the room behind her. A community mug was in his hand, a stressed look adorning his face.
“Sit down, Aneesh,” she said, and she gestured to the couch.
He plopped onto the couch and set down his coffee on the table. “That little fucker really pissed me off,” Aneesh said, putting his feet on the table and leaning back into a musty old pillow.
“Do you think he was right?”
Aneesh gave a very sudden and sickly look. “No, Aneesh, what I mean is: did that guy really do Nobel-prize winning work? I just can’t wrap my brain around it.”
Aneesh relaxed. “Does it matter?” he asked.
Millie didn’t quite know how to respond to this. She sipped her coffee. “Well, I mean, the Nobel is a really important prize. It’s THE prize, Aneesh. Below that, all other prizes are ribbons at the county fair.”
“Really?” Aneesh asked.
“We ARE talking about the same Nobel prize, right?”
“Yeah, yeah, Millie. Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences. Alfred Nobel. Isn’t one for mathematics. I know the one.”
“So why don’t you think it’s important?”
Aneesh smirked. “Why do YOU think it is important, Millie?”
Millie didn’t like it when Aneesh turned the question back on her. She frowned. Aneesh laughed. “Seriously, Millie, I think it is more important to understand why you consider it so important before I explain why I am not taking it so seriously.”
“Well, it’s the most prestigious prize that recognizes work in physics. Isn’t that enough?”
Aneesh smiled again. “I agree, but what makes it important to you?”
“I’m a physicist,” she said without hesitating, “and I want to win one.”
“So the prize is for you?”
“What do you mean, ‘for me?’ I don’t think I’m going to win one for my graduate thesis, if that’s what you mean.”
“What I mean is, when the prize is awarded you really think that it’s important for us, the physicists, the people getting the prize?”
Millie didn’t understand where Aneesh was going with this. She took a gulp of her coffee. “Just get to the point, Aneesh.”
“What I mean is, Millie, there is all this pomp and circumstance about the Nobel prizes. The Academy makes these phone calls at some God-awful hour here in the U.S., letting some sleepy academic know they’ve won a trip to Sweden. The press eats it up. There’s all the glitz and glamor. The royal family hosts the winners, they are paraded in front of a huge crowd months after the results are announced. They spend the rest of their lives serving on committees, giving public lectures, and bouncing from place to place evangelizing past glories. And you really think the prize if for the WINNER?”
Millie thought about this. “Millie,” Aneesh said, “a Nobel prize winner barely gets to set foot in a laboratory ever again, unless they’re running the damn thing. They’re so busy worrying about talking to people, meeting with Senators, showing up at state dinners, adding scientific color to gatherings and scientific merit to petitions, and asking for money they will rarely do meaningful work again. The Nobel prize robs the winner of any semblance of a real research career again. They do good for others, but they have little hope of ever doing good for their own scientific needs ever again.”
Millie digested this. “So, what’s the punchline, Aneesh?”
“Simple. The Nobel prize isn’t for us. It isn’t for the scientists; it’s for the non-scientists. Think of the endless news stories and articles about the prize winners. Think about how much everybody talks about this stuff for a solid 24 hours after the announcements. The fact that the Academy makes the announcements over a period of days steals time away from movie stars, from sports teams, from politicians, from all the crap that people fill their brains with when they watch the news. They actually focus on science, on literature, on peace, for just a few days.
“Sometimes, the prize is so fucking controversial people actually waste their whole weekends arguing endlessly about whether or not so-and-so was worthy of the prize. People who have no idea what it means to do scientific research, to act on behalf of peace, to write a poem or a novel, will actually argue about whether someone who does these things is worthy of the prize. It’s amazing. I saw two old men going to blows over the Nobel peace prize when I was a kid. They were best friends but when that prize was handed out, they actually shoved each other around until they stormed out, never to speak again. Good God, Millie, this isn’t for us; it’s so that for just a few days people will fight about something that MEANS something.”
Millie hadn’t considered this before. “So do you see why it’s so important that the physics prize went the way it did?” Aneesh asked.
She did. “Yes, Aneesh.”
Aneesh jumped up from the couch. “Great. I gotta go finish studying for this mid-term, Millie. I’m gonna steal my books from the Bullpen and go hide in the library. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
With that, he was gone. Millie sat in the dim light for a while. Eventually, she decided that she, too, should study. As she was about to get up, she heard voices entering the lounge. “I am telling you, Price, it’s because he’s black.”
“Jesus, Bill. Next you’ll be saying that Maria Goeppert-Mayer got the prize just because she was a woman.”
Millie stiffened. She recognized the voices. These were professors in the math department. They had clearly come to escape meetings, deans, and colleagues for some light Nobel-prize-related conversation.
“Look, the guy didn’t discover something. He didn’t learn something. He built something. There were at least two other names on that list this year that were real discoveries, fundamental science of the highest caliber.”
“How do you know that?” asked Price.
“I have sources. Anyway, the pressure has been building to a crescendo for years to diversify the physics prize. This is just another CCD or integrated circuit, except this time they wanted to shake up the spectrum.”
“You know, we’re only arguing about this because there isn’t a math Nobel,” Price said, trying to change the tone of the discussion.
Millie decided to change it for them. “It’s not about whether he’s black, or really even what he did. It doesn’t matter that he didn’t do what you call ‘fundamental physics.'”
There was a pause. “Who said that?” Price asked.
They were clearly looking around the lounge but hadn’t seen where Millie was sitting. “It’s about the discovery he made, and how it changed communication. Because of him, because of what he did, the reality of a terabit internet connection to the home became real. Because of him, companies abandoned TV and moved everything to the net. They changed their business models, they streamed their content, they made billions of dollars, and they made it possible for anybody with connection to watch anything they wanted any time they wanted. It was blindingly cheap for them to deploy and blazing fast for the audience.”
“But that’s not fundamental science, whoever you are,” said Bill.
“It really doesn’t matter, Bill,” Millie said with boldness, “because what matters is that people will stop and think about where those cheap HD movies come from tonight. They will hear about this on the news, or from a friend, or from some petty co-workers arguing about it over a water cooler. They will think for a moment that, ‘huh, this is possible because somebody cared enough to discover it. They got a prize for this. More popcorn, please.’ In the end, they’re the ones who have to care, because they will fund all of this – you, me, all this science. In the end, they should care more than us what the Nobel prize was for, or why it was given.
We should just shut up and do science.”