Saturday, August 30, 2014

The Nobel Prize and Einstein's Ghost

This December 10 th marks the one hundredth anniversary of when the first Nobel Prizes were awarded. Ever since, they have been a subject of great interest and debate.

Alfred Nobel died on 10 December 1896. When his will was opened it was found that he had donated his considerable wealth to creating the prizes that bear his name. Five prizes were mentioned: physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature and peace; and four prize-awarding institutions named: the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences (for physics and chemistry), the Karolinska Institutet (for physiology or medicine), the Swedish Academy (for literature) and a group appointed by the Norwegian Parliament, later called ``The Norwegian Nobel Committee'' (for peace). Sweden and Norway were then tied together in a union.

Since the creation of the Nobel prizes, more than 650 medals and diplomas have been given away in the original prize areas. A prize in economic sciences in memory of Alfred Nobel was established by the Bank of Sweden in 1968. Most of these prizes are connected with scientific breakthroughs, literary masterpieces and attempts to make peace in a violent century.

The thread running though all the stories of the prize winners is the concept of creativity: both individual creativity and creative environments. One story - that of a Nobel Laureate in Physics, Albert Einstein - is particularly explicative of the process. Perhaps the most common question about the Nobel Prize in Physics is this: ``Why didn't Einstein get the prize for his theory of relativity?''

At the age of 26, during his ``annus mirabulis'' of 1905, Einstein published three papers that were to influence the entire 20 th century, not only in physics. One of these papers concerned the special theory of relativity, which describes how space and time, or mass and energy, are mixed at high speeds. One paper describes the ``Brownian motion,'' the irregular motion performed by small particles in a liquid as a result of their collisions with the liquid molecules. The third paper, finally, explains the photo-electric effect, why light can make electricity leave metal surfaces, something we apply in ordinary photocells.

Of the three theories, the theory of relativity became the most written about and discussed. When the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences year after year asked scientists for their nominations, many answered that Einstein deserved the Nobel Prize in Physics for his special theory of relativity. But the Nobel Committee for Physics didn't agree, and for years no prize was awarded to Einstein!

At first the Nobel Committee argued that the theory might be wrong and wrote that it would be best to wait for experimental evidence that confirmed Einstein's theory. When Einstein managed to generalise his theory and introduced the curved space-time, in which light bends around heavy astronomical bodies, the number of nominations increased even more.

But the Nobel Committee for Physics had a powerful member, Allvar Gullstrand, professor at Uppsala University and Nobel Laureate in Physiology or Medicine 1911 for his work on how the light bends in the eye. In his opinion, Einstein was wrong, and he tried to prove it by making his own calculations. Today, we know that Gullstrand was wrong, but his opposition was enough to block the prize-awarding process.

In Uppsala, however, another professor, Carl Wilhelm Oseen, a specialist on mathematical physics, understood Einstein's theories and had also understood the power balance in the Nobel Committee for Physics. As a newly elected member of the Academy, in 1921 he was the first to propose giving to Einstein a Nobel Prize for his work on the photoelectric effect. This single nomination made the wheels begin to turn in Einstein's favor.

Oseen was made a member of the Nobel Committee and wrote a positive report on the theory of the photoelectric effect. The very next year, Albert Einstein was awarded the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics ``for his services to Theoretical Physics, and especially for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect.''

So was the Royal Academy of Sciences mistaken in not giving its award of a Nobel Prize to Einstein for what most people would consider his most important intellectual discovery? Many have argued that this is the case. But one has to study a little bit more history of physics before making the final judgment.

In this history it is clear that Einstein's paper from 1905 not only explained the photoelectric effect, but also initiated something of a greater magnitude, something revolutionary: it introduced the concept of the photon, the wave-particle which not only lies at the heart of our understanding of both micro- and macrocosmos, but which led to technical applications such as medical laser scalpels and the laser diodes of the Internet. With regard to the text of Alfred Nobel's will, which requires that a Nobel Laureate confer the greatest benefit on mankind, Einstein's introduction of the photon by far surpasses the theory of relativity!

Today the work of the five Nobel Committees goes on, mainly along the same lines as at the beginning of the 20 th century. The big difference is the number of nominations, which today tend to run in the several hundreds. If a new Albert Einstein is hidden somewhere among the hundreds of candidates, only the future will tell!

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