Friday, January 13, 2006

Happy hour: Nobels that could have been

There have been some remarkably productive scientists who, in the course of their careers managed to come up with not just one but many path breaking findings, each of which could have won a Nobel prize. Yet very few of them actually won more than one Nobel prize in science. Marie Curie won a Physics Nobel, and a Chemistry Nobel seven years later. Bardeen won two Physics prizes, while Fred Sanger won two chemistry prizes, the first in the fifties for work on the structure of insulin, and the next in 1980, for his work on DNA sequencing). Linus Pauling won two, one for Chemistry and another for peace!). Here are some people who did win a Nobel, but only once. They perhaps should have won another for some other equally (if not more) epoch work.

Albert Einstien, the obvious name on the list, for the theory of relativity. Relativity at that time was so controversial that the Nobel committee didn’t recognize him for that. They gave him a Nobel for discovering the photoelectric effect, another seminal (but perhaps less impressive) discovery.

Linus Pauling (yes, he could have had three Nobels!), for postulating molecular origins of diseases. Or yet another one (a fourth), for discovering alpha helices (any one studying protein structure will tell you how elementary and important that is). One of the greatest scientists of the last century for sure.

Francis Crick, another phenomenal scientist, whose explanation of the genetic code being a triplet code (with three DNA molecules coding for one amino acid, in a degenerate code) revolutionized chemistry and biology and our very understanding of the basic molecules of life. Crick changed his area of research every ten years or so, and contributed phenomenally to anything he studied. His last efforts (before he died) he was studying the nature of consciousness.

Sydney Brenner (who won the Nobel in medicine for his genetics work on organ development and programmed cell death) could have shared one with Crick for working out the genetic code with him.

This is just the starting of the list. Can you think of a few more names that could easily make this list? (And include Economics in this list too).


Michael Higgins said...

Hi Sunil
An interesting post.
Indeed, Einstein wrote no fewer than 5 amazing papers in 1905 that revolutionized Physics. Any one of them could have received an Nobel.

I was unaware that any scientist won the Nobel twice in the same field. Indeed, Einstien should have won it multiple time.

The most glaring omission in the Nobels is clearly for the peace prize: Gandhi should have won.

But in Economics, I would say that it is much easier to name Economists who probably were lucky to win a prize. I think about Finn Kydland who won with my old professor Ed Prescott. I think that the only publication Kydland ever had was that famous paper with Prescott.

Some of the early economists might have won two or three prizes. Samuelson had many contributions: overlapping generations, public goods, time series econometrics. But it seems to me that it was really easy to have a groundbreaking economic paper 50 years ago. Maybe there is a lot of ground still to be broken but it seems pretty ploughed up today.

Michael Higgins said...

Hi Sunil
I saw an excellent mini-series on PBS (it might have been NOVA) about E=MC^2. In that show, it described a very remarkable Jewish German Physicist who made some important discoveries on atomic theory (I cannot remember her name). She escaped Germany before Hitler could kill her. She still collaborated with a German Chemist. Well the Chemist got the prize all by himself when he should have shared it with this lady. Do you remember this story and the wronged Physicist?

Anonymous said...

ECG Sudarshan may have a suggestion. Probably he doesn't read your blog!

Sunil said...

Hi Michael.....yup.....they missed Gandhi. But the peace prize is heavily political, and at that time the British empire was still strong. They would have strained every nerve to make sure Gandhi didn't get even more recognition than he already had.

I didn't know you were Prescott's grad student (or did you just take a class of his). But yeah......some times, all it takes is one pathbreaking paper (like Kydland).

And what you said about early economists seems true for early scientists also. It's perhaps partly because the sheer volume of research now is many many times more than what was being done. There were fewer scientists (or economists) then, though most of them were very good. And i know exactly what series you are talking about on PBS, but for the life of me cannot remember the women's name.

Very few women have won nobels though. One of our faculty, Linda Buck, won it last year for medicine.

Anand...with Sudarshan's's the usual Nobel problem. They allow only three people to share a prize. So, if there's a fourth who has contributed's just too bad but he/she won't make the cut. It might be the same with Sudarshan. There's nothing you can do about it, since that's the way the prize has been made. Though of course....i don't know the relative contribution of Sudarshan vs the rest.....but the jurors must have figured that he just missed out.

Veena said...

Michael and Sunil: We all watch the same programs or what? I believe you are talking about Otto Hahn who won the award for nuclear fission. Couldn't remember the lady's last name but Google comes to the rescue - Lise Meitner.

Anonymous said...

In ECG Sudarshan's case, what actually happenned was that the Nobel committee's citation for one of the winners (1/2 the prize), Roy J. Glauber, contained a reference to Sudarshan's work (they cited it as Glauber's work)! This prompted Sudarshan to write a letter to the committee informing them about this.

Aswin said...

First, a small correction : Einstein didnt dicover the photoelectric effect. He was the first to explain it with a physical basis. The effect itself was discovered by Hertz.

Another important work of Einstein is the famous EPR paper(1935). He discovered a particular feature of QM called entanglement. Infact, this is his most cited paper :)
There are quite a few physicists(surely, none are like Einstein) who have multiple "path-breaking" works to their credit... but I am not sure as to which of them match the Nobel criteria.

As reg Gandhi,this article (on the official Nobel site) might offer some insight.

Michael Higgins said...

Hi Sunil and Veena
Veena: Thanks, that must be the name of the wronged woman.

Sunil: No Prescott was not my advisor. I was macro T.A. for one year and I worked with him in designing some tests and homework assignment. He was a hopeless teacher. He never ever prepared and it showed all too well. He thoroughly confused everyone in the class and my job was to try to unconfuse them. It made me someone popular.

I remember one time Prescott scheduled a makeup class on a weekend to make up for an extremely rare school closing due to extreme cold temperature. He forgot all about it and I was stuck trying to wing it.

I should have asked Prescott to be my advisor, he would have agreed easily, but he was advising no less than 20 (!) other students at that time. But the incident with the snow day convinced me that maybe I couldn't count on him. But I regret that decision now. I would definitely be a professor somewhere with him as an advisor. I really regret that.

Anonymous said...

As someone else pointed out, the lady concerned was Lise Meitner who was a pretty formidable nuclear physicist. With regards to Sudarshan, he had an equal role in developing the theory for a lot of quantum optics today, so I do think he deserved it.

Kydland wrote two pathbreaking papers with Prescott-one was on business cycles, and the other was on time consistency in economic policy. The latter has considerably influenced the way central banks make monetary policy decisions. So, I dont think it is being entirely fair to him to say that he was just lucky.

Sunil said...

Veena....thank you very much. It was Lise Meitner!

Anonymous, VKR.....thanks for the Sudarshan info. Too bad for him.....but it doesn't take any thing away from his work. The recognition would have been good though. And VKR, thanks for the little extra trivia about Kydland.

Michael......i think you enjoyed grad school more, and perhaps got more out of it, by not working for a superbig name (who probably wouldn't have had much time for you). But yes....these small decisions make big differences to careers.

Aditya said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Aditya said...

this post might be of interest

Anonymous said...

The Nobel Prize in Physics 2005 raises many disturbing questions about the protection of the intellectual property rights of physicists who do belong to minority communities in the US like Prof. E.C.G. Sudarshan. Publication of papers by no means guarantees an authentic estimate of the relative contributions of competitors, since it is possible to read the same printed material in widely divergent ways. Consider this: physicist X gives a seminar talk which is attended by Y and reported to Z. Physicist Z realizes that physicist X lacks the correct perspective, although the method he suggests is a natural one. Physicist Z writes a paper and sends preprints to various people including physicist X who responds by saying that he has obtained similar results, without sending anything in writing and requests that he be acknowledged, to which physicist Z has no objection. Physicist X then publishes a paper, which contains a dead and unusable mathematical treatment and a fair share of theoretical mistakes. Physicist Z's paper appear in the same journal 2 months later and duly carries a reference to Physicist X's paper. Now physicist X, after criticising the contribution of physicist Z, takes over this specific contribution which he falsely believes is a special case of his own formulation and gives it a name. The theory is credited to X and Z although X did not understand the theory too well. This is nothing but surreptitious appropriation by physicist X of physicist Z's work and any Nobel Committee worth its salt ought to have examined the historical record in thorough detail before honouring the interloper X.

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