Some curiosities of the Nobel Prize

These days we are learning the names of the winners of the Nobel Prize 2021. These prizes were created at the initiative of Alfred Nobel in 1895 and were awarded for the first time in 1901. Initially they were for Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature and Peace . Later, at the initiative of other institutions, a prize for Mathematics and for Economics was established. These last two do not have the same origin as the previous ones, although they are also called the Nobel Prize and are announced by different institutions. All, except for Peace, are delivered on December 10 in Stockholm. The one for Peace is delivered in Oslo.

Medicine, Literature, Peace and Economics are the ones that attract the most attention. The others attract us if there is an Argentine involved, as happened in 2020 when it was rumored that one of the candidates was Julio Navarro, an astronomer from Santiago based in Canada.

In science, awards are generally given many years after the award-winning work is published. This did not happen in 2017, when Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish and Kip Thorne won it over for the first detection of gravitational waves, which was made in 2015.

The Nobel Prizes in Physics were several times awarded to people of other professions because important work in physics is rewarded. On several occasions the winners were astronomers. Perhaps the most peculiar case is that of the engineers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson, who received it in 1978 for having discovered the cosmic background radiation in 1964. They were two engineers from an American telephone company who did not do research and discovered it by chance .

This year it was won by two meteorologists, Syukuro Manabe and Klaus Hasselmann, for physical modeling of the Earth’s climate, quantifying variability and reliably predicting global warming.

There are also those who never received it, as in the case of Jorge Luis Borges, who was always rumored that he would win it and never received it, or like Stephen Hawking, who developed the theories of the origin of the Universe that are the most accepted. Hawking was probably not given it because there is no experimental verification of his theories, but this is just speculation. Candidates are never announced and it is not stated why the award was not awarded.

Perhaps the most emblematic case of someone who did not receive it is that of Jocelyn Bell (photo). She is an Irish astrophysicist who discovered pulsars when she was a PhD student (1967). Pulsars are high-speed spinning neutron stars that emit radio waves because they have a very strong magnetic field. A result, without a doubt, important for stellar astrophysics. The announcement of this discovery was made with five authors, the first was her thesis supervisor and she the second author. Remember that the place someone occupies in the list of authors indicates the importance of their participation in the work. The Nobel Prize for this discovery was awarded in 1974 to Anthony Hewish, who was his thesis advisor.

Jocelyn at that time said that it was okay not to give it to her because it would degrade the award to give it to a student. A short time ago in an interview, she was asked how she felt about not being included in the prize and said that the Nobel is considered the maximum to which one can aspire and generally no other prizes are given to those who received it. If they had given it to him, he would not have had the possibility of traveling to receive other prizes. In the scientific community she is recognized as the discoverer of pulsars.

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Some curiosities of the Nobel Prize

Hank Gilbert