2005 Physics Nobel Prize

After my initial success last year, I’ve retired from the business of predicting who will get Nobel prizes. This year’s physics prize will be announced in less than two weeks, on Tuesday, October 4. Anyone else want to make a prediction?

Last year there was a Nobel Prize Market, but it doesn’t seem to be in operation this year.

For the last few years Thomson Scientific has been issuing Nobel prize predictions based on citation counts. They’re not doing very well in physics, basically because every year they predict it will be Green, Schwarz and Witten. This year’s prediction is here. In 2003 they rather petulantly commented:

Most observers believe the Nobel Prize will not be awarded for theoretical work. If, however, citations reflect real influence and prizes ought to be awarded for influential work, the Nobel Committee should consider recognizing string theory and M theory, whose leading figures have been Green and Schwarz, the pioneers, and Witten, who extended their work. Witten, it should be noted, is the most-cited physicist of last two decades.

Their idea that the Nobel prize is not awarded for theoretical work is kind of strange, and wrong. Last year’s award was to theorists. The people at Thomson seem to not be able to tell the difference between theoretical work that is confirmed by experiment, and work which isn’t. So far the Nobel committee seems to be able to make that distinction, and doesn’t just count citations. Presumably this will still hold true for this year. While I won’t predict who will get the prize, I will predict that Green and Schwarz won’t get it, and if Witten does, it won’t be for his work on string or M-theory.

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56 Responses to 2005 Physics Nobel Prize

  1. LM says:

    To Leonard Susskind, for pioneering work in the field of Quantum Tautology.

  2. Wolfgang says:

    To Lubos Motl for his contribution to the physics of global warming,
    determining the heat capacity of ice.

  3. Belizean says:

    David Deutsch, one of the fathers of quantum computation.

  4. Haelfix says:

    I hate to be biased, but we do have some astrophysicists who are worthy of four of five nobel prizes by now. If theoretical work in the absense of 11 decimal precision is ever to be awarded, I would think that field would and should be the first one to be signaled out.

    Yes we do have experimental verification, no its unfortunately nothing like detector confidence, yes our work is pretty important.

  5. a says:

    Nobel prize of not-this-year:

    M.W. Goodman and E. Witten for
    and the experimentalist that will possibly do

  6. Zelah says:


    I have a courageous prediction for the nobel prize.

    I believe that it should go to Vera Rubin of Dark Matter fame, with relevant coawardees.

    The reason is that Sir Martin Rees, and James Peebles won the Crafoord prize in 2005 for Dark Matter! I consider this scandalous! I have nothing against Rees or Peebles, who have done wonderful work regarding Dark Matter, but ignoring Vera Rubin is quite astonishing!

    I do not have much hope in this regard but who knows?

    To be fair to the nobel committee, there are plenty of experimentalist Physicist who are just as worthy.

    An Amateur Mathematician

  7. hongbaozhang says:

    Time flies fast, this year’s Nobel prize will come!
    I guess this year will be given to some quantum optics physicist:)

  8. D R Lunsford says:

    How about BRST? (Becchi, Rouet, Stora, and Tyutin) That’s real physics at least. If Witten gets it I’ll go on a ten-day drunk out of despair for my lost civilization.


  9. Tony Smith says:

    For physics Nobel, how about Kobayashi and Maskawa ?

    Tony Smith

  10. Quantoken says:

    I do not know who will receive it, but if the Nobel is awarded to string theory related research, it would be the unprecedent because this will be the first time a Nobel price is awarded to some highly speculative ideas that has no confirmation whatsoever by experiment. It would be a joke and could make Nobel a laughing stock and respected scientists would refuse to be recognized by the Nobel prize, if at the end of day super string theory is proven to be totally wrong and irrelevant to the nature.

    I do not think that will happen.

    Remember Nobel prizes are not awarded to mathematics?


  11. Nigel says:

    Einstein got the prize for the maths of the photoelectric effect, which was experimentally first noticed by Edison. Edward Witten could get it for superstrings, on the basis of being the only mathematical approach which ties up the standard model.

  12. If Nobel prize give string theorist, how about Hawking and Penrose?
    Hawking’s radiation gives the most important hints on string theory.
    Penrose’s spinor technique much influences Witten’s work.

  13. blank says:

    Noticed there weren’t any MacArthurs awarded to physicsts this year.

  14. D R Lunsford says:

    Tony – good suggestion, and it’s classic “this works but God knows why” phenomenology!


  15. ali says:

    I agree with Haelfix:

    I’ll be betting on Rashid Sunyaev (too bad Zeldovich isn’t still around). They might also give it to some experimental cosmologists.

    Someone deserves credit for showing the universe is flat based on CMB measurements…

  16. Not a Nobel Laureate says:

    One hopes that the Nobel Prize in Physics will be awarded for physics.


    Goldhaber, Grodzins, and Sunyar: neutrino helicity

    Sajeev John et al: photonic bandgaps and photonic localization

    David Awschalom et al: spin Hall effect

    Unfortunately Chien-Shiung Wu (parity violation) died in 1997.

    On the other hand, Susskind et al are highly qualified candidates for the Ubu Prize in Pata-Physics or at least the IgNobel Prize.

  17. biophysics says:

    Here are a couple theorists who most might’ve passed over. How about giving the prize to Edward Lorenz for opening up the study of chaos, which has had both immense mathematical and physical research associated with it?

    Ok that’s one idea. The other one I got by looking at the list of winners of the Dirac Medal – how about J.J. Hopfield for his pioneering work in theoretical biophysics?

    Yeah, yeah totally biased and all, but the physics of complex systems is definitely one of the most exciting fields of modern theoretical physics and it would be a fine idea, in my opinion, to recognize some pioneers in the arena.

  18. misslemon says:

    Guth? Tyson (J.A.)?

  19. Matthew says:

    No way will it go to particle physics again this year. If I had to guess, something to do with the CMB seems a reasonable bet.

  20. Mike Bacon says:

    I second the nomination of David Deutsch.

  21. Jeremy says:

    What about Jim Peebles? or Peebles and Sunyaev?

    I don’t think there has ever been a prize for theoretical cosmology, which is scandalous. Well, Bethe won, but that was for stars. It’s too bad Dicke and Wilkinson aren’t with us any more.

  22. Not a Nobel Laureate says:

    I “second” the CMB.

    Regarding J.J. Hopfield, interesting work, but what is it’s predicitive ability in what I agree is the very exciting field of biophysics?

  23. Chris says:

    Fowler got it in 1983 for his work in big bang nucleosynthesis.


  24. misslemon says:

    David Deutsch?!? Really? And seconded?!

  25. Eric Dennis says:

    Why don’t we wait until a quantum computer is actually built — or at least something with more than like 5 qubits — before we start getting behind Deutsch (or better Peter Shor) for a Nobel.

    Not at all to diminish the relevant achievements, but 1) there is no new physics here, it’s all quantum engineering; 2) after the initial breakthrough in error-correcting codes around 1996, nothing much has happened in this field of fundamental importance or significant help to experimentalists in building anything remotely resembling a useful machine; 3) at present, building a quantum computer seems about as likely as performing an experimental test of string theory.

    While at least in quantum information the theoretical side has not divorced itself from real physics, the hype surrounding the whole enterprise (and generated just as much by the experimentalists in this case) is not that different in terms of its calculated half-truthfulness from that of string theory.

  26. Quantoken says:


    Who said that enginnering work can not be awarded a Nobel prize? Last year’s Nobel Chemistry prize was awarded to a Japanese for inventing a measurement trick that gained wide usage. He didn’t even have a Ph.D. and was just a technician.

    There are quantum computers around. Any quantum system is a quantum computer in a broad sense. According to Seth Lloyd at http://www.edge.org, the whole universe is a quantum computer.


  27. Eric: as someone who works on the theory side of quantum computing, I agree with you that the Swedes should wait for more experimental successes before awarding any prizes in this field. That would be in keeping with their past practices.

    But if it’s true that “there is no new physics here, it’s all quantum engineering,” then it’s strange that at least two Nobel physicists (‘t Hooft and Laughlin) think building a quantum computer is fundamentally impossible! Maybe the right way to say it is this: quantum mechanics is 1920’s physics, which becomes 21st-century physics when taken completely seriously.

  28. Pingback: L’Arrêt demort » Blog Archive » Prix Nobel de ‘Pataphysique 2005

  29. Pseudo-string-fan says:

    I watched a TV program which said Susskind was the first one who proposed string theory. Therefore, he should be awarded the Nobel prize if string theory can be proved true. Right?

  30. biophysics says:

    Ok I think I agree that Hopfield getting a Nobel physics prize might be a stretch (for the same reason that other Dirac medal winners don’t get Nobels, like Daniel Freedman, for example..while experimentalists righly get Nobels for inventing devices that have furthered physics, theorists do not to get prize for their ‘theoretical devices’ until at least some experimental substantiation has come about to validate the use of those ‘devices’).

    But Lorenz I think is eminently qualified for the Nobel – chaos and nonlinear dynamics have become a huge part of the modern theoretical frontier, and the existence of deterministic chaotic motion has been borne out by grade school experiment 🙂

  31. Zelah says:

    I find the pushing of Mr Lorenz for the nobel as extremely strange!

    The truth of the matter is that Chaos was well know to mathematicians! KAM Theory anyone! It was the physicists who needed to catch up!

    Essentially, Chaos Theory if you have studied it is just a subsection of Condensed Matter Physics in disguise!

    The only person who could POSSIBLILY win the nobel prize for Chaos is Feigenbaum of Feigenbaum constant fame!

    An Amateur Mathematician.

  32. Luboš Motl says:

    I have not written the first comment by “LM” – but actually it is not such a bad comment. 😉

  33. Aswin says:

    Penzias and Wilson got a nobel.. and the WMAP team deserves one too! The Supernova team ??.. may be later.
    These days, Weinberg (and many others) seems to be interested in comparing Cosmology-of-today to PP of 70s. With support of such powerful voices, I guess cosmology is in for some good time 😕

  34. Aswin says:

    oops..I meant COBE.

  35. Nitin says:

    What about having a group of researchers getting the Nobel? Maybe the guys who found out that the expansion of the universe is accelerating (Aswin’s supernove team), or the WMAP team (again Aswin thinks the same)? Alan Guth would be a good choice. My guess is this year’s Physics Nobel is going to a cosmologist/astrophysicist (see how the picture of the universe on the large-scale has changed in the past 2 decades). It’s hard to say who though, hard. hmm…

  36. Thomas Larsson says:

    Nitin, the Nobel is traditionally awarded to at most three individuals. That’s probably why Ward wasn’t recognized with Glashow-Salam-Weinberg for the electroweak theory.

  37. Nitin says:

    Ok.. maybe the conditions are different for different Nobels? Because I remember the Medecins Sans Frontieres getting the Peace Nobel.. maybe I’m wrong on this point as well.
    Toutes mes excuses.

  38. Thomas Larsson says:

    Yes, I was thinking about the sciences (including economy). Peace is different. So is literature, which AFAIK has never been shared.

  39. Sergei Popov says:

    Last year on the Nobel prize Market I suggested Michel Mayor for the discovery of exoplanets. Still, I think, he’s a good candidate.

    Prizes are not given for unprooved theories, so nothing for Witten, but I have to mention Linde & Co. for inflation theory.

  40. Eric Dennis says:


    I didn’t know ‘t Hooft was a skeptic. Do you have a reference? As for Laughlin, while I have great respect for some of his heterodox views, from what I’ve seen his polemics against the possibility of quantum computing are pretty flimsy, and quite poorly articulated besides. I think we would agree that if someone actually demonstrated the impossibility, or exhibited a currently unknown physical effect that would somehow in general prevent a quantum computer from being realized, that would be entirely unexpected and almost certainly itself merit a Nobel.

    Perhaps you could be more concrete though. Could you give an example of important new physics that has been discovered in connection with quantum information research? (Again, I don’t think the absence of such is necessarily a bad thing, I just think it’s relevant for something like a Nobel decision.)


  41. Mike Bacon says:

    My ‘second’ of Deutsch had to do with his groundbreaking work in quantum computing. Pariticularly now, with rapid progress being made in “cluster quantum computing” (i.e. robust and scalable quantum computation using both stationary qubits (e.g. single photon sources made out of trapped atoms, molecules, ions, quantum dots, or defect centers in solids) and flying qubits (e.g. photons)). It’s the case that theorists do not to get the prize for their ‘theoretical devices’ until at least some experimental substantiation has come about to validate the use of those ‘devices.’ While quantum computation has been ‘proved’ in theory (and carried out with a limited number quibits), it does now seem that this fundamentally new form of information technology is about to blossom. Whether this supports Deutsch’s philisophical views is another matter — however, the work is turning out to be hugly significant.

  42. Not even a physicist says:

    I agree that CMB is a good candidate. Will it go to COBE, WMAP or both?

    How about neutrino oscillations? Davis and Koshiba were awarded for detection of cosmic neutrinos, but not for oscillations. Is there a possibility of another prize for neutrino physics?

    Is there any chance for Nambu, either for his work on symmetry breaking, or for introducing colors?

  43. Eric,

    I completely agree with you about Laughlin’s arguments. A reference for ‘t Hooft is gr-qc/9903084 (especially pages 12-13). My response to some of the skeptics (mainly computer scientists) is at quant-ph/0311039.

    As for whether quantum information is “new physics”: would you say the uncertainty principle was new physics? What about Feynman’s sum-over-histories picture, or the Bell inequality? All of these were “mere” mathematical consequences of the quantum formalism, yet today they’re almost inseparable from QM itself.

    I would argue that the following results from quantum computing and information have deepened our understanding of QM in an analogous way:

    * Shor’s and Grover’s algorithms
    * The optimality of Grover’s and other quantum algorithms (showing why QM often *doesn’t* yield exponential parallelism)
    * Quantum error-correction and fault-tolerance
    * Adiabatic computation and QMA-completeness of the Local Hamiltonians problem
    * Teleportation and dense quantum coding
    * Holevo’s Theorem, lower bounds for random access codes, and other results in quantum communication complexity
    * Ideas from entanglement theory (like entanglement swapping and purification)

    But maybe it’s just a matter of taste — I’d also give Aspect et al. a Nobel for confirming the Bell inequality violations, but it hasn’t happened yet.


  44. Eric Dennis says:


    I don’t claim something is disqualified from being “new physics” just because it’s ultimately a mathematical consequence of standard QM. Presumably high temp superconductivity is completely understandable in terms of some many-body Hamiltonian, and that’s certainly new physics. But high temp superconductivity — as opposed to Grover’s algorithm or channel bounds or the other things you list — actually exists. It’s not just some idea we have about something we could make.

    The actual physics in quantum computing, the ion traps or QED cavities, is not really part of quantum computing reserach itself. It’s condensed matter or quantum optics or whatever. Things like adiabatic or anyonic computation may at some far future date straddle this boundary, but that’s only when something computationally non-trivial is actually built.


    P.S. I definitely don’t regard Bell’s inequality as new physics. It’s really great, but it has no special connection to any theory of physics (including QM) other than providing a necessary condition for locality. I won’t bother commenting further on path integrals etc.

  45. Eric,

    This seems like a semantic debate — e.g. were Bose-Einstein condensates not a legitimate part of “physics” until someone actually created one?

    But I don’t think we disagree that much in practice — we both think the Nobel committee should continue to award prizes only for theories that have actually been confirmed, or things that have actually been built. That acts as a useful brake on unrestrained speculation.


  46. Eric Dennis says:

    I don’t think it’s semantic, and that’s why we seem to disagree about the status of Bell’s inequaltiy. I am saying that if an experimentalist were to succeed tomorrow in assembling a bunch of coupled quantum dots or something and implement fault-tolerant codes and factor 10^100 + 1, that would be miraculous, but there’s no new physics. Perhaps the superconductivity comparison wasn’t clear. Each of the little quantum dot widgets in the computer, and the cavities, and etc. — that’s the physics, and that’s not really part of QC research. Having built this computer, no basic new aspects of nature would have been discovered. Something wonderful would have been built, but that’s not the same. Perhaps you could say some mathematical aspects of the world would have been discovered, in the same way that some mathematical aspects of the world are discovered in the course of designing and running a classical silicon-based computer.

    The reason I persist here, is that the physics-ization of QC research strikes me as similar in certain respects to the physics-ization of string theory. In terms of physics rather than math or CS, both of these things are constructions, not discoveries. QC isn’t trying to be a discovery, and it need not be one, but some of its practitioners find it useful to talk as if it is one. String theory is trying to be a discovery, and it’s failing badly, but some of its practitioners also find it useful to talk as if it is one.

    Anyway, I suspect we won’t agree. Nice arguing with you.

  47. kaushik says:

    James Yorke…..pioneer of chaos. Its such a huge field in itself, and is an integral part of physics now and has application is so many fields.
    Yorke, and few other pioneers of the subject deserve a nobel

  48. Jack says:

    I predict Kosterlitz and Thouless for the KT transition. It really opened up the area of 2D physics and its originality and applicability make it Nobel Worthy. Future prizes that will be awarded have to eventually include Michael Berry for his geometric phase. that would also be high time to recognize Aharonov.

  49. "A guy who does not believe in String theory" says:

    A prize for cosmology would be nice! Two guesses: either Bennett, Page(?) and Spergel (???) from WMAP, or Guth, Linde & Steinhardt for inflation (although I think they will wait for the detection of GW, the B modes of CMB, to award inflationists).

  50. Neil says:

    It is time to recognize the theoretical and practical achievements in photon localization and photonic band gaps (Sajeev John and Eli Yablonovitch). The visionary discoveries in the field of light localization and photonics will lead to revolutionary real-world applications, greatly exceeding what was achieved in the past century using the discoveries in electronics.

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