This year’s Nobel Prize in Physics was, in a way, a foregone conclusion. The 1998 discovery by two teams of scientists that the expansion of the universe is accelerating—under the influence of something that scientists have shruggingly come to call dark energy, which later studies have revealed to comprise 72.8 percent of the universe—was one that everybody assumed would win the Prize. It was only a matter of when.
Only somewhat less foregone was who would receive the Prize for the discovery. The leaders of the two discovery teams—Saul Perlmutter, of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and Brian Schmidt, of the Australian National University Mount Stromlo Observatory—were shoo-ins. As the lead author on Schmidt’s team’s discovery paper, Adam Riess, a postdoc at the University of California, Berkeley, at the time of the discovery (now an astronomer at Johns Hopkins University), stood perhaps—perhaps—slightly less of a chance, but the difference was in the nature of a four- versus a five-sigma result.
Even the allocation of the award was more or less foregone. Perlmutter would get half of the 10 million Swedish kroner ($1.44 million) prize, and either Schmidt would get the other half or he would split it with Riess. The latter scenario—50/25/25—is indeed what the Solomons of Stockholm decreed, and this past Saturday the three new laureates received their medals from His Majesty King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden.
Yet in the two months since the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences announced the Prize, on October 4, many members of the discovery teams have found themselves experiencing what one astronomer described to me, via e-mail, as “a bag of mixed emotions.”
The problem isn’t that the wrong persons won. The problem is that the right persons didn’t.
According to Nobel bylaws, the Prize in Physics (as well as the other categories) can go, at most, to three living persons. That rule might have made sense in 1901, the year the first Prizes were awarded. But back then, science was still in the workbench (or, for Einstein, the patent clerk’s podium) era: one mind, one mission, one eureka moment.
That culture began to change when the UC, Berkeley, physicist Ernest Lawrence invented the “proton merry-go-round,” or what we would call the cyclotron. His first model, in the late 1920s, was five inches in diameter, but it served as the prototype for the particle accelerators that have come to symbolize Big Science, for better or worse.
Worse, astronomers would say. That Saul Perlmutter was at Berkeley Lab when he helped begin a collaboration among physicists that would discover evidence for dark energy is a coincidence. But the Big Science, top-down, the-same-lead-author-on-every-paper culture is precisely what the astronomers on Schmidt’s team tried not to emulate. They favored a more democratic, bottom-up approach: the guy (they were all guys) who did the most work on a paper got to be lead author.
Either approach, however, was going to involve more than one or two people per team. By the 1990s, astronomy had outgrown its own workbench era—the workbench being the telescope on a remote mountaintop, where astronomers would observe whatever facet of the heavens interested them before popping into the accompanying darkroom to develop photographic plates. Astronomers today aren’t generalists. They can’t be. The diversity of the science and the complications of technology have forced the field into greater and greater levels of specialization.
In the case of the two discovery teams, they were working not just with stars but with exploding stars, and not just with exploding stars but with a particular species (Type Ia). They needed spectroscopists, photometrists, coders. They needed experts in metallicity, redshift, and red dust. They needed designers and engineers to exploit existing technology and to design new instruments. They needed gruntwork from grad students.
They needed teamwork.
“The group has discovered that in all the hoopla, there has been no indication that it was actually a team that did the work,” Nicholas Suntzeff, now at Texas A&M (and a guest contributor to LWON), wrote me two days after the Nobel announcement. Alex Filippenko, an astronomer at UC Berkeley both then (1998) and now (and the subject of a recent LWON post), wrote in an email to friends and colleagues after the Nobel announcement, “All together, the two teams had 51 scientists, each of whom contributed significantly (and in some cases, a large amount) to the research.” The astronomers could take solace that at least members of the community would know how collaborations work. But the public? Posterity? As Britain’s Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, said, “It would have been fairer, and would send a less distorted message about how this kind of science is actually done, if the award had been made collectively to all members of the two groups.”
Nobody was expecting the Nobel Foundation to agree to change the rule. But as the members of the two teams took to the Internet and old-fashioned phones to discuss the Prize, they found themselves trying to come to terms with the emotional fallout from the rule.
“If you are like me,” Suntzeff wrote to his team members the week of the announcement, “there is bittersweetness in this award. I am sure all of us agree that Brian and Adam deserve the award, and deserve to represent the Team’s success. But the reality is that there remains a huge difference between winning the Prize and not, which does not reflect the nature of our collaboration. Even though it is unfair that team effort will be forgotten quickly now by history, it will be the reality.”
Suntzeff had already experienced his own brush with obscurity. The original official Nobel press release said that Schmidt “organized” his team. Which he did—only he did so with Suntzeff. In 1994, during a discussion at the headquarters of the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in La Silla, Chile, where Suntzeff worked at the time, the two astronomers had agreed on the goals and allocated the responsibilities. Two days after the Prize announcement, Schmidt contacted the Academy, and as a result the Nobel website now reflects the facts behind the founding of the collaboration.
But even that collaboration grew out of a previous collaboration, the Calán/Tololo supernova survey, to which Suntzeff belonged. And the founder of that collaboration, the Chilean astronomer Mario Hamuy, had designed the survey specifically to serve as a first step toward the work that the Nobel committee had now immortalized.* After the Prize announcement, Hamuy went on Chilean television and, visibly upset, decried the lack of recognition for Chilean astronomy.
“I cherish the friendship of the group,” Suntzeff wrote to his collaborators. “I hope that our friendship will withstand the contradictory feelings of elation, jealousy, pride in accomplishment, and the sting of lack of recognition outside our community”—or what one collaborator called “feelings of disappointment, and disappointment with ourselves for being disappointed.”
“There is nothing wrong with these feelings,” Suntzeff concluded, “and we will live with them for a long time—they are natural. But just remember, we all played key roles in discovering three-quarters of the Universe, and no one else in history save our two groups will ever be able to say, ‘We discovered most of the Universe in 1998.'”
Then he went out and gave a talk to about a hundred Texas A&M faculty and students on “Almost Winning a Nobel Prize.”
For the record:
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* Just prior to the publication of the discovery paper, Hamuy removed himself from the collaboration over a priority dispute with fellow team members; for the details, see pages 105-106 in my book on the discovery.
Credits: http://www.nobelprize.org/; detail from Laurie Anderson’s Big Science album artwork; http://iopscience.iop.org/