2019 Physics Nobel Prizes Announced, John Horgan Wins

The 2019 Physics Nobel Prizes were announced this morning, half going to Jim Peebles for his work on big bang cosmology, half to Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz for discovery of an exoplanet.

You can read elsewhere more details about the prize winners and their work, but I do want to point out that this announcement means (since there will be no further Physics Nobel Prize awards before the start of 2020) that John Horgan has won his 2002 bet with Michio Kaku, with \$2000 going to the Nature Conservancy. The winning prediction from Horgan was:

By 2020, no one will have won a Nobel Prize for work on superstring theory, membrane theory, or some other unified theory describing all the forces of nature.

If one looks at the comments back then, Gordon Kane signs on to an even stronger variant of the Horgan/Kaku bet:

By 2020 there will be a Nobel Prize for a string- or unification- or supersymmetry-based theory or explanation or experimental discovery.

Luckily for him he doesn’t seem to have put up any money for this, since he has now lost this bet.

For my own comments at the time, see here (this was a couple years before this blog was started). As I explained there, I was willing to sign up on Horgan’s side of the bet if the “other unified theory” clause was eliminated. Unlike Horgan, I’m not a sceptic at all of the existence of a unified theory, or of humanity’s ability to find it. My argument (which I think has held up well) was that we’re not going to get there by pursuing superstring theory or anything like it. In a better world, the LHC would have found not a vanilla Higgs, but something unexpected that gave us a new idea about electroweak unification, one that pointed to a successful new idea about a fully unified theory. I didn’t think this was likely, but I thought it was possible, and I wasn’t interested in betting against the possibility I would most like to have seen.

What shocks me about where we are now that Kaku and Kane have lost their bets is not that they lost, which was to be expected, but that this loss seems to have had zero effect on their behavior. Kane’s endless replacement of failed predictions by new ones is a well-known story. For Kaku, one can get some idea of his current point of view from this interview:

Yahoo News: So tell us about your work in string field theory. You’re trying to finish Einstein’s equation?

Michio Kaku: That’s right. We want to find the “God Equation” — the ultimate theory that explains the entire universe. We want an equation that’s maybe 1 inch long that would allow us to “read the mind of God” — those are Einstein’s words.

Yahoo News: And how’s it going?

Michio Kaku: We think we have it! It’s called string theory. It’s not in its final form, and it’s not testable yet, [but] we have the Large Hadron Collider outside Geneva.

We’re testing the periphery of the theory, but the theory itself is a theory of the universe — so it’s very hard to test. But we physicists are optimistic. We think we will be able to test the theory. And we think it is the final theory. So physics ends at that point. Another era opens up, but one era ends when we finally prove this is the Theory of Everything….

If string theory is correct, it means that all the subatomic particles — the electrons, the protons — are nothing but musical notes on a tiny vibrating rubber band. So that physics is nothing but the harmonies of the vibrating rubber bands. Chemistry is nothing but the melodies you can create from the vibrating strings. The universe is a symphony of strings.

And the mind of God is cosmic music resonated through hyperspace.

Kaku also appears in this recent story, which Sabine Hossenfelder refers to as “math fiction”. For this kind of phenomenon I prefer Horgan’s version: “science fiction in mathematical form”.

I don’t know of other bets on string theory, but there were quite a few bets about SUSY. I assume David Gross has now paid off his lost bets on SUSY, haven’t heard though anything about that. At the Copenhagen SUSY bet event, the losers (Arkani-Hamed, Gross and Shih) showed no signs that losing a bet on a scientific outcome had any effect at all on these scientist’s views on the issue they were willing to bet on.

Update: Horgan has posted his own take on this here.

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25 Responses to 2019 Physics Nobel Prizes Announced, John Horgan Wins

  1. Blake Stacey says:

    I’m pretty sure the “read the mind of God” line was Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time, not Einstein.

  2. Wavefunction says:

    Kaku’s main goal for a long time has been to generate sound bytes and thrills for public consumption, not sound physics statements grounded in reality. I read his writings as speculative entertainment rather than science.

  3. David Brahm says:

    On a purely nitpicky note, I’m not sure whether “by 2020” means “by 1/1/20” or “by 12/31/20”, so I’m not convinced the bet is closed. Contract law, anyone?

  4. Peter Woit says:

    One can dismiss what Kaku and Kane say as not to be taken seriously, so not a problem. But the phenomenon of string theorists refusing to admit failure is a widespread one, and it will do continuing damage to both the intellectual health of the field, as well as its perception among the public.

    David Brahm,
    In any case, there will be no string theory Nobel in 2020, and after that, Kaku will continue to give talks about how well string theory is doing anyway.

  5. Daniel Sudarsky says:

    It is truly astonishing that people that are supposed to excel at critical thinking, to be trained for, and committed to the scientific enterprise, to appreciate the power of reason over dogma and to be against crowd thinking, can express themselves in the manner Dr Kaku does regarding string theory. In an epoch where humanity is increasingly confronting the return of obscurantist attitudes, be it from politicians (and increasingly from segments of the so called “ intellectual elites”) not to mention from the wider public, it is frankly scary to see the ease with which such tendencies, that become forces to be reckoned with, emerge from within the scientific community. In fact, I wonder to what extent the latter in now contributing to the former. In other words, when eminent scientists tell us “we can prove a theory mathematically” ( i.e. without concerning ourselves with empirical evidence) or that “one era ends when we finally prove this is the Theory of Everything”, (i.e. there is no doubt that this IS THE THEORY) what is the effect on the attention people would pay to what other, less famous scientists, say regarding vaccination campaigns or global warming.

  6. Personally, I feel no need to prove the theory experimentally, since I believe it can be proven using pure mathematics.
    -Michio Kaku

    Whatever you think about string theory, this is not how physics or mathematics works, I’m pretty sure. The following induction

    Because string theory has near-miraculous breakthroughs every 8 to 10 years, we can expect 2 more breakthroughs in the theory before 2020…

    is astounding. There were, what, two (or three?) such breakthroughs before 2002? Or are there more stretching back before the 80s?

  7. Low Math, Meekly Interacting says:

    I hope this isn’t OT, but while we’re discussing the absence of unification, one could say the same thing about this year’s prize. Worthy accomplishments, to be sure, but not exactly closely related. Is this not unusual?

  8. Peter Woit says:

    David Roberts,

    The “near-miraculous” breakthroughs being referred to are

    1. First superstring revolution, 1984: anomaly cancellation calculation of Green-Schwarz. This allowed the construction of certain kinds of superstring unification models that one would other wise suspect would have anomaly problems. 35 years later, all evidence is that if realistic such models can be constructed, there are so many of them that the class of models can give almost anything, explains nothing about the Standard Model. The real significance of this calculation is that it got Witten enthusiastic about superstring unification.

    2. Second superstring revolution, 1995: Witten’s M-theory conjecture, based upon evidence of string dualities. 24 years later, we still don’t even know what “M-theory” is.

    In 2002, if you believed the 1984 and 1995 hype, you might by induction have expected a mid-decade “revolution” in the 2000s. By now though, it has become all too clear that the first two “revolutions” did not give what was hoped, and (while you could argue for a 1997 AdS/CFT “second and a half” superstring revolution) since 1997 there have been no significant positive developments in the area of superstring unification. And quite a few negative ones, beginning with the failure of the last hope for some connection to experiment (at the LHC).

  9. Peter Woit says:

    That also struck me as very odd. I can’t think of another example of a Physics Nobel award split in half, with the halves going to two completely unrelated topics.

  10. DanM says:

    “I can’t think of another example of a Physics Nobel award split in half, with the halves going to two completely unrelated topics.”

    How about one year ago? Mourou and Strickland invented chirped pulse amplification, which is an optical amplifier that works for ultrashort pulses. Meanwhile, Ashkin came up with the idea of manipulating small objects with light (i.e., optical tweezers), which is a topic that is (from the point of view of an optics person) entirely unrelated to optical amplification, let alone to short pulse amplification.

    That sort of thing is not actually all that rare. The assessment of “unrelated” is a matter of perspective. From most people’s point of view, cosmology and exoplanets are both astrophysics topics, and therefore are very related to each other.

  11. A.J. says:

    2008 prize to Nambu and Kobayashi/Maskawa seems like a similar split, just a bit less obvious to laypersons.

  12. anon says:

    Another example from 2002: one half to Giacconi for X-ray astronomy and the other shared between Koshiba and Davis for neutrino astrophysics.

  13. Peter Woit says:

    DanM, A.J.,anon,

    I see that in the summary of the award, they try and justify putting different things together. Back in 2008, the justification was that both awards were for understanding symmetry breaking (spontaneous for Nambu, CP for Kobayashi-Maskawa). In 2018 the justification was
    “for groundbreaking inventions in the field of laser physics”. In 2002 it was “for pioneering contributions to astrophysics”.

    This year, they’re really stretching it, just pasting together two unrelated clauses of woo: “for contributions to our understanding of the evolution of the universe and Earth’s place in the cosmos”.

  14. kdl says:

    The Nobel Prize in Physics 1978 was divided, one half awarded to Pyotr Leonidovich Kapitsa “for his basic inventions and discoveries in the area of low-temperature physics”, the other half jointly to Arno Allan Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson “for their discovery of cosmic microwave background radiation.”

    Actually this year’s award to Peebles was related to CMB as well.

  15. Peter Woit says:

    Interesting, that seems to be a case where there was no attempt at all to relate the two halves. One does wonder what rules are being used to govern this sort of thing.

  16. Moshe says:

    The flip side of the coin is the Physics Nobel Committee not joining together related discoveries when such a linkage would be natural. An example is provided by the (to me, surprising) omission of Robert Pound’s elegant pioneering verification of the gravitational redshift in the laboratory (exploiting the ultra-precision of the Mossbauer effect) with the Hulse-Taylor binary pulsar as an indirect test of gravitational waves. The connecting thread would have been experimental testing of GR. Alas.

  17. Amitabh Lath says:

    The bet was made in 2002. The LHC startup got delayed (19 September 2008 magnet incident among other issues). Maybe you want to be a bit generous and extend the bet to the end of LHC Run 3?

  18. @Peter,

    that’s what I thought, with AdS/CFT as a possible third, but so close to 1995 kind of rules it out.

    Do people making such public statements not see they are being actively unhelpful to the field? By all means study field theories of extended objects, ideally in a mathematically rigorous way, just don’t set your watch by a single pair of “near miraculous breakthroughs”.

  19. chiz says:

    I’ve thought for some years that Wolszczan, Didier and Queloz deserved a Nobel but I’m puzzled as to why Wolszczan was only given a mention in the write-up rather than a share of the prize. Since when do you give the prize to the second person or persons to discover something?

    Like others I’m unsure of what their work has to do with Peeble’s. Maybe the committee didn’t think Peeble’s work was significant enough to be a sole recipient of the prize and was only worth part of a Nobel?

  20. anon says:

    The Nobel Foundation statutes say this about shared prizes:

    “A prize amount may be equally divided between two works, each of which is considered to merit a prize. If a work that is being rewarded has been produced by two or three persons, the prize shall be awarded to them jointly. In no case may a prize amount be divided between more than three persons.”

    I don’t see anything preventing a prize being shared by two completely unrelated works, though in practice they seem to at least try to find some connection.

  21. Peter Shor says:

    Why two barely related Nobel Prizes in the same year?

    The Nobel Prize is only given out once a year, and I would assume that the Physics Prize Committee believes there is a long backlog of people who deserve it and haven’t yet received it. Giving prizes to two only slightly related discoveries in a single year helps relieve this backlog.

  22. Lowell Brown says:

    Why does no one remark that Jim Peebles did wonderful work decades ago and that his award of a Nobel Prize is long overdue? Is no one interested here interested in significant connections of theory with observation?

  23. martibal says:

    @chiz: similar comments were made when Kobayashi and Maskawa got the prize, but not Cabibbo.

  24. There are many Nobel prizes split to only loosely related or even very different achievements. Beyond those mentioned above consider, e.g.,

    2009 Charles K. Kao, Willard S. Boyle, and George E. Smith
    – for groundbreaking achievements concerning the transmission of
    light in fibers for optical communication
    – for the invention of an imaging semiconductor circuit –
    the CCD sensor

    1989 Norman F. Ramsey, Hans G. Dehmelt, and Wolfgang Paul
    – for the invention of the separated oscillatory fields method and
    its use in the hydrogen maser and other atomic clocks
    – for the development of the ion trap technique

    1986 Ernst Ruska, Gerd Binnig, and Heinrich Rohrer
    – for his fundamental work in electron optics, and for the design
    of the first electron microscope
    – for their design of the scanning tunneling microscope

    1981 Nicolaas Bloembergen, Arthur L. Schawlow, and Kai M. Siegbahn
    – for their contribution to the development of laser spectroscopy
    – for his contribution to the development of high-resolution
    electron spectroscopy

    1963 Eugene Wigner, Maria Goeppert-Mayer and J. Hans D. Jensen
    – for his contributions to the theory of the atomic nucleus and
    the elementary particles, particularly through the discovery
    and application of fundamental symmetry principles
    – for their discoveries concerning nuclear shell structure

    1961 Robert Hofstadter and Rudolf Mössbauer
    – for his pioneering studies of electron scattering in atomic
    nuclei and for his thereby achieved discoveries concerning the
    structure of the nucleons
    – for his researches concerning the resonance absorption of
    gamma radiation and his discovery in this connection of the
    effect which bears his name

    1955 Willis E. Lamb and Polykarp Kusch
    – for his discoveries concerning the fine structure of the
    hydrogen spectrum
    – for his precision determination of the magnetic moment of the

    1954 Max Born and Walther Bothe
    – for his fundamental research in quantum mechanics, especially
    for his statistical interpretation of the wavefunction
    – for the coincidence method and his discoveries made therewith

    1936 Victor F. Hess and Carl D. Anderson
    – for his discovery of cosmic radiation
    – for his discovery of the positron

    1927 Arthur H. Compton and C.T.R. Wilson
    – for his discovery of the effect named after him
    – for his method of making the paths of electrically charged
    particles visible by condensation of vapour

    This is still a non-exhaustive list; see

  25. tulpoeid says:

    Allow me to say that all (apart from maybe one or at most two) of the examples of “split” Nobels mentioned in the comments can be accommodated within a single descriptive sentence – at a layman’s level of description. These guys advanced astrophysics on large scales. Those guys found out how electrons in atoms behave. I think that’s good.
    (And, yes, there is the backlog to consider as well.)

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