Yesterday, the 2015 Nobel Prize in Physics was awarded jointly to two physicists – Takaaki Kajita and Arthur B. McDonald – who made leading contributions to the discovery that neutrinos, very difficult-to-detect subatomic particles, can actually change from one kind to another kind spontaneously. This is called “neutrino oscillation” or “neutrino mixing,” and the fact that it happens at all implies that neutrinos have mass. In case the notion of a neutrino is alien to you, here are some helpful resources to learn more about this important subatomic particle.
This has been an interesting year for the Nobel Prize. Recognizing contributions to the world in areas like chemistry, physics, biology, literature, and even peace, the prize is awarded once per year to up to two lucky individuals in a given field. This year, the prize in physics was awarded to Albert Fert and Peter Grunberg for their research into a unique magnetic effect that made it possible later for hard drives to shrink. Without their interest into the basic principles of magnetism, the web as we know it, and the kind of rich personal data storage every PC enjoys, would simply not be possible. Being able to shrink the size of the medium while storing orders of magnitude more data is the reason that the power to create and edit music and video is now in the hands of the average person. You may decry YouTube, but the chaff was always there in peoples’ heads. Now they can express it, and you never know where you will find joy or genius.
The most interesting prize was the Peace Prize, awarded to both Albert Gore and Dr. Rajendra K. Pachauri (head of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC). The award was given for ” . . . their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change.” The media is playing the speculation game about how Gore will use this newfound publicity, but I’m interested in something more important than that: peace and basic research.
As scientists on the public payroll, we always face questions about the value of the research vs. the dollar investment. Many of us feel the need to constantly worry about the justification. Here, we see a great example of how science, politics, and peace converge in a single moment of recognition. The basic research into how climate changes, how to measure the change, and into the causes of change has been going on for well over two decades. As more and more strands of evidence appeared, the tapestry became one of a clear trend of rapid temperature increase, whose rate of change is much higher than at comparable times in the past. The cause was not changes in the sun, or natural global variations, but “forcing” as a result of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere from human industry.
Though the science spoke louder and louder over time, it took a group of dedicated scientists and politicians to stand as advocates for the science itself. NASA administrators, members of Congress, and even former failed presidential candidates spoke out. Gore’s strategy – to release his powerpoint lecture on the data and the projections of the damage – certainly won the popular imagination. It drew criticism from scientists for being alarmist, but it also drew praise for being a loud voice in the crowd. People paid attention, and soon the national dialogue changed from a cacaphony of media talking heads to a coherent public discourse on how to address the problem. While the data were there, it took the international collaboration of the IPCC and the media saavy Al Gore to really wake people up and force them to participate in the discussion and the solution.
Here, the basic science and the politics had met and joined forces. And what about peace? Climate change is about the future, and how the present influences that future. We cannot know the future, but science gives us a framework to project the consequences of our actions. Left unchecked, we may not see the horrible visions of movies like “The Day After Tomorrow”, but things aren’t going to be rosy. Inhabitants of coastal regions, many of them poor and depending on the sea for their living, will be forced to leave their cities and villages and move inland. Droughts, increased in frequency and devastation by the increase in temperature, will force competition for scarce freshwater resources. Should industrializing nations not learn from the painful lessons of the United States, Europe, and Russia, they will continue to dump the by-products of their economic growth into lakes and rivers, into topsoil and the air, corrupting further the resources needed to sustain civilization. The stresses on societies may cause borders to come into question, wars and massacres to flare, and increase the rhetoric on rights to nuclear technology as an excuse to build weapons while also having a limited, fossil-fuel-free energy supply.
Peace is one of the possible victims of climate change, and it is science that has given us the means to understand the causes of the problem, and the consequences of action and inaction. Peace is certainly at stake as resources shift or shrink. Let’s not forget that basic research does have a role to play in our lives – sometimes, it gives us a broad picture of our own existence, in amazing an unexpected ways. Let this Nobel stand as a testimony to the power of science.
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.
It’s Nobel Prize season! I’m not a big fan of doing science for a prize, but I value the public impact that the prize has. For instance, today two American scientists, John C. Mather and George F. Smoot, were recognized with the prize for their tireless effort to realize the COBE satellite. COBE was the biggest landmark on the road to precision cosmology, imaging the cosmic microwave background radiation. This prizeis interesting for several reasons, which I’ll here elaborate.
First, the prize is interesting because it brings to the public awareness the understanding that the Big Bang is not just a crazy idea that cannot be tested. Some who don’t understand the process of science criticize it by saying, “How can anyone claim the universe started in a so-called *big bang* when no one was there to see it?” This is a very good question, and shouldn’t offend any listening scientists. This presents a great opportunity to explain the process of science, and this Nobel prize is jsut such an opportunity.
No, there were no witnesses of the big bang who are still on Earth today. However, the looking for evidence of the big bang is a lot like standing on the edge of a pond and watching the water for evidence that someone dropped a stone into it. Let’s say you’re doing this – your’e standing on one side of a pond, fed by a slow-moving stream that bends away out of sight. You suddenly see regular ripples – waves – spreading out from the stream’s mouth and out across the pond. What caused these waves? They are regular, and slowly die away after a short time. One hypothesis is that somebody dropped a rock into the stream, causing water waves to propagate into the pond, where you saw them. The big bang is a lot like this: nobody can see the bang itself, but its evidence is there, if you know what you’re looking at.
COBE was the first precise map of these ripples in our cosmic pond. A universe that was once small and dense would have, at a very early moment, been filled with a hot soup of matter in which radiation was trapped, prevnted from streaming vast distances. At some point, as the universe expanded and cooled, matter would have neutralized – forming, for instance, hydrogen or helium – leaving energy able to travel freely through the electrically neutral matter. On the other hand, a universe that was “always there”, or “static”, would never have been hot and would never have had a moment when radiation was suddenly freed to stream across the cosmos. It’s this critical difference, between a “big bang” universe and a static universe, which COBE definitively revealed.
This prize is also interesting for another reason: I believe it marks the first time that a prize is awarded to a relatively few people who represent the effort of hundreds of physicists. The COBE experiment wasn’t just Smoot and Mather and a few students. The science team on the experiment, just one of several teams within the collaboration, jointly published the first COBE science results. This team typically had about about two dozen members. Therefore, this prize represents the first in what will be a growing problem in recognizing physics with the Nobel prize: many current and future experiments, all which stand on a road to discovery, have hundreds – THOUSANDS – of members. What do you do then? Do the founders get the prize? Do the spokespersons get the prize? Do the leaders of physics working groups get the prize?
A symbol like the Nobel seem like it needs to be poised to adapt the changing face of science. As science grows and adapts, it would seem wise that prizes that temporarily highlight that science needs to adapt as well.