This year’s Nobel Prize in Physics was shared between three men, but you’d be hard pressed to quickly pick their names out of the list of authors in the paper describing their groundbreaking work on gravitational wave detectors — there’s a thousand contributors, taking three of the paper’s 16-pages, and that’s before their respective university affiliations are listed.
Scrolling through the many listed author names highlights a fundamental truth of science: it’s about cooperation, not a competition, with any discovery or step forward in understanding built on the ideas and work of many others. So why award a prize to just three?
Though handing this year’s physics prize to Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne and Barry Barish for their work on the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (Ligo) has reignited the controversy, the complaint has been leveled at the Nobel Foundation for years, with critics suggesting the prominent award sidelines key contributors, encourages the myth of the “lone genius”, and downplays the teamwork inherent in the scientific method.
Following the physics award yesterday, Sir Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, told the BBC that the success of the work was owed to “literally hundreds” of engineers and scientists. “The fact that the Nobel committee refuses to make group awards is causing them increasingly frequent problems — and giving a misleading and unfair impression of how a lot of science is actually done.”
That’s not news to the Nobel Committee for Physics, says committee member Olga Botner. “Suffices to say, the committee is aware of the fact that experimental physics nowadays includes large collaborative projects.” Botner also notes that the LIGO collaboration was made up of 1,000 members from across 90 institutions.
“Nevertheless, the committee has identified three key individuals without whom the discovery wouldn’t have happened. They represent well the diverse competencies needed for Ligo’s success: from detector design and understanding of sources to integration and evolution. All three were indispensable.”
How do you pick three from a thousand? Ulf Danielsson, another member of the Nobel Committee for Physics, says that much like science itself, the selection of Nobel winners requires a drawn-out discussion across the academic community.
The process starts each year with an open call for nominations, from institutions and individuals in the field, as well as specific requests for feedback from experts in the field. That’s used by the committee as the basis for its selection, which is handed to the academy for a final decision, though Danielsson says the discussion around a specific nominee or discovery can take years. “It’s extremely careful work that is done,” he says.
With research such as Ligo, spanning decades and thousands of contributors, the committee has to assess which academics were fundamental to its success. For that, the it again turns to experts in the field. “It’s work which sometimes takes a very long time, and can be difficult,” Danielsson says.
In this case, he suggests there was little controversy in selecting the three award winners. “They all made key contributions to the discovery and the construction and the development of the Ligo detectors. These three people are key figures and without them, there wouldn’t have been Ligo.”
The Nobel Prizes for science are limited to three names. But what if there were room for another name — is there anyone else who should have been included? Danielsson says he simply couldn’t answer the question, as the committee doesn’t discuss people who haven’t received the prize, and its website explains it won’t discuss names of other nominees for 50 years.
The committee avoided having to make a decision on a fourth key contributor, the Scottish physicist Ronald Drever, as he passed away earlier this year and the award is never given posthumously. Drever shared previous awards with Thorne and Weiss after the breakthrough was published in 2015.
The Nobel Foundation also refuses to name entire teams of scientific collaborators as an award winner, though it does so for the Peace prize, previously naming the European Union and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. That said, Danielsson explains that while the trio of men handed the physics prize deserved to be singled out for the award, “they also serve as representatives for the whole team, for the whole collaboration”.
For Botner, the wider Ligo collaboration did get some credit, if not the actual award. “As you may have noticed, the collaboration is named in the announcement as the affiliation of the Laureates,” she says.
In other words, Weiss, Thorne and Barish took home the award — and a share of nine million kronor )£836,000) — but to everyone involved in helping them spot the universe’s gravitational waves, you’re all winners.