2004 Nobel Prizes in Physics

No, they haven’t announced the Nobel prizes yet this year. The announcement of the physics prize is scheduled for mid-day (Stockholm time) next Tuesday. I have zero inside information about who is likely to get the prize this year, but in particle theory there is one obvious choice: Gross, Wilczek and Politzer for asymptotic freedom.

The discovery of the asymptotic freedom of Yang-Mills theory led very quickly to the realization that QCD was the right theory of the strong interactions, and this was what really completed the Standard Model. It is one of the most important discoveries of 20th century science. The calculation of the Yang-Mills beta function was completed about the same time by David Politzer (a student of Sidney Coleman’s at Harvard) and David Gross working with his student Frank Wilczek at Princeton. Gross was actually trying to complete a proof that all QFTs had bad ultraviolet behavior; he still was suffering from the pre-QCD prejudice that the strong interactions could never be understood via QFT, that one needed instead to do S-matrix theory or string theory or something other than QFT.

I’ve always been surprised that a Nobel hasn’t yet been awarded for this discovery. The only reasons I can think of are political ones:

1. Evidently ‘t Hooft had done the beta function calculation earlier, but hadn’t realized how significant it was or written it up. He certainly didn’t work out the experimental implications for deep inelastic scattering, which was what Gross, Politzer and Wilczek did. Unlike ‘t Hooft, they immediately realized the significance of the result. So the Nobel committee might have felt it that it would be unfair not to make an award to ‘t Hooft. But ‘t Hooft did receive the prize a few years back for his work on renormalization of Yang-Mills theory, so this reason should no longer hold.

2. David Politzer was made a tenured professor at Caltech at a very early point in his career, but hasn’t done much since then. Some people might not be so happy about awarding him the prize.

3. There certainly are some people in the particle physics community who weren’t personally fans of David Gross. I remember many years ago a lunch with one European physicist who claimed to be involved in the Nobel decision process, at which he vividly claimed that “David Gross will get a Nobel prize over my dead body!”. He’s dead now, so at least he’s no longer an obstruction.

Anyway, Gross-Politzer-Wilczek is my bet for next Tuesday.

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29 Responses to 2004 Nobel Prizes in Physics

  1. praveen kumar jha says:


  2. Sanjay says:

    And you’re bang on (the winners were announced yesterday). The reasons you cite – especially 1, and probably 2, are the right ones…

  3. D R Lunsford says:

    It’s a lot more fun when school is over 🙂

  4. geoff says:

    Physics is fun!

  5. D R Lunsford says:

    Kinda like when Paul Newman got the Oscar (finally) for “The Color of Money”. Well done Peter 🙂

  6. Thomas Larsson says:

    Congratulations, Peter, you were right!

    Press Release: The 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics
    5 October 2004

    The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has decided to award the Nobel Prize in Physics for 2004 “for the discovery of asymptotic freedom in the theory of the strong interaction” jointly to

    David J. Gross
    Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics, University of California, Santa Barbara, USA,

    H. David Politzer
    California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Pasadena, USA, and

    Frank Wilczek
    Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, USA.

    A ‘colourful’ discovery in the world of quarks
    What are the smallest building blocks in Nature? How do these particles build up everything we see around us? What forces act in Nature and how do they actually function?

    This year’s Nobel Prize in Physics deals with these fundamental questions, problems that occupied physicists throughout the 20th century and still challenge both theoreticians and experimentalists working at the major particle accelerators.

    David Gross, David Politzer and Frank Wilczek have made an important theoretical discovery concerning the strong force, or the ‘colour force’ as it is also called. The strong force is the one that is dominant in the atomic nucleus, acting between the quarks inside the proton and the neutron. What this year’s Laureates discovered was something that, at first sight, seemed completely contradictory. The interpretation of their mathematical result was that the closer the quarks are to each other, the weaker is the ‘colour charge’. When the quarks are really close to each other, the force is so weak that they behave almost as free particles. This phenomenon is called asymptotic freedom. The converse is true when the quarks move apart: the force becomes stronger when the distance increases. This property may be compared to a rubber band. The more the band is stretched, the stronger the force.

    This discovery was expressed in 1973 in an elegant mathematical framework that led to a completely new theory, Quantum ChromoDynamics, QCD. This theory was an important contribution to the Standard Model, the theory that describes all physics connected with the electromagnetic force (which acts between charged particles), the weak force (which is important for the sun’s energy production) and the strong force (which acts between quarks). With the aid of QCD physicists can at last explain why quarks only behave as free particles at extremely high energies. In the proton and the neutron they always occur in triplets.

    Thanks to their discovery, David Gross, David Politzer and Frank Wilczek have brought physics one step closer to fulfilling a grand dream, to formulate a unified theory comprising gravity as well a theory for everything.

    Read more about this year’s prize
    Information for the Public
    Advanced Information (pdf)
    Links and Further Reading

    David J. Gross, born 1941 (aged 63) in Washington DC, USA (American citizen). Doctor’s degree in physics in 1966 at the University of California, Berkeley. Professor at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, USA.

    H. David Politzer, (American citizen). Doctor’s degree in physics in 1974 at Harvard University. Professor at the Department of Physics, California Institute of Technology (Caltech), Pasadena CA, USA.

    Frank Wilczek, born 1951 (aged 53) in Queens, New York, USA (American citizen). Doctor’s degree in physics in 1974 at Princeton University. Professor at the Department of Physics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge MA, USA.

    Prize amount: SEK 10 million, will be shared equally among the Laureates.

  7. Dirac Beckenboll says:

    In my personal view,the Nobel Physics Prize for this year should be given to the scientists who work in the field of String Theory and the Yang Mill’s Theory due to the significent effect by them to the theoritical Physics.But however ,I would also like to say that nowadays there are really no quite exiting news in those fields,then why don’t we change our previous thought of the candidate and focus on some old famous scientists?
    I mean probably we may award ChenNing Yang and Mills for their proficient work in the Gauge Field Theory.Why not?

  8. atrel says:

    Lubos Motl said:

    “I just don’t understand how can you give a Nobel prize for testing an accepted theory a little bit further. I think that Nobel prizes can only be given for new discoveries, and this example is precisely a textbook example of having no new discoveries.”

    Understand or not…

    Quote from


    “Here a new, revolutionary “space laboratory” has been obtained for testing Einstein’s general theory of relativity and alternative theories of gravity. So far, Einstein’s theory has passed the tests with flying colours. Of particular interest has been the possibility of verifying with great precision the theory’s prediction that the system should lose energy by emitting gravitational waves in about the same way that a system of moving electrical charges emits electromagnetic waves.”

    I think prizes *should* be given to people who find cool ways to test theories beyond the regimes that were reachable before, whether the theories pass the test or not. This is a way to encourage experimentalists to think hard about new ways to push the limits, whether some theorists think it is worth it or not (didn’t Pauli think measuring g was useless?)

  9. sol says:

    Some are behind the times here and in this article 2002, what is realized in 2004? The Perimeter institue and Smolin are well on top of the issue from a Glast perspective?

    Test of the Quantenteleportation
    over long distances in the duct system of Vienna

    Working group
    Quantity of experiment and the Foundations OF Physics
    Professor Anton Zeilinger

    Quantum physics questions the classical physical conception of the world and also the everyday life understanding, which is based on our experiences, in principle. In addition, the experimental results lead to new future technologies, which a revolutionizing of communication and computer technologies, how we know them, promise.

    In order to exhaust this technical innovation potential, the project “Quantenteleportation was brought over long distances” in a co-operation between WKA and the working group by Professor Anton Zeilinger into being. In this experiment photons in the duct system “are teleportiert” of Vienna, i.e. transferred, the characteristics of a photon to another, removed far. First results are to be expected in the late summer 2002.


  10. Lubos Motl says:

    Dear Michael,

    yes, I was referring to rather specific experiments of Zeilinger et al. – some of them studied entanglement at distances of order kilometers.

    Well, you may say, together with some other physicists, that quantum mechanics could fail at distances of order kilometers. We think that it cannot. Well, physics has the virtue of having experiments. The experiments have been done, and you have been proved wrong. 😉

    I hope that this unsuccessful prediction of yours should at least reduce your self-confidence in claiming that amazing violations of quantum mechanics could be observed at distances of order 100 kilometers!

    But more generally, I just don’t understand how can you give a Nobel prize for testing an accepted theory a little bit further. I think that Nobel prizes can only be given for new discoveries, and this example is precisely a textbook example of having no new discoveries.

    I also absolutely disagree with your statement that there are principles (you even say “a lot of principles”) of quantum mechanics that have not been tested. What do you exactly mean? Quantum mechanics was *created* through experiments. When quantum mechanics was developed, even the most obvious conceptual steps in the theory were only done once the experiments showed that it was necessary. The statements called “principles of quantum mechanics” have been experimentally tested before the end of the 1920s. I just don’t know what exactly you want to test today.

    There is no known theory that could explain the observed experiments in a consistent framework but that would violate a principle of quantum mechanics – and we can more or less show that such a theory can’t exist.


  11. “Come on, Michael, there was just no way how quantum mechanics could conceivably break down at distances of order one mile.”

    I’m not sure what you’re referring to, here. Why did you pick “one mile”? Are you referring to a specific experiment? Or is this a general statement, that quantum mechanics can’t possibly be wrong on everyday scales?

    Certainly, I think Zeilinger’s done a lot of great work checking quantum mechanics in various regimes where it has never been tested before. Macroscopic superpositions of semiclassical states and controlled entanglement have only very recently been observed, and Zeilinger’s been at the forefront of that effort.

    If you’re saying that there’s no way quantum mechanics could fail at distances on typical macroscopic scales, well, I disagree, and so do many other physicists. There are, quite simply, a lot of basic principles in quantum mechanics that have never been checked, or have been inadequately checked.

    “The value of Zeilinger’s experiments is purely pedagogical, everyone around agrees with that, ”

    I’m not sure who “everyone around” is, but I suspect only a tiny fraction of physicists would agree. Certainly, people I know within AMO physics – one of the largest subcommunities of physics – generally seem to feel that Zeilinger’s work is important.

  12. Lubos Motl says:

    Come on, Michael, there was just no way how quantum mechanics could conceivably break down at distances of order one mile.

    Your approach “Zeilinger did not prove that QM works the way it does, it is just consistent” explicitly shows that you would be willing to spend new money to make similar experiments where the separation is 10 miles, 100 miles, and so forth.

    This would be a complete waste of the money, and it is not really true that these experiments would be probing a new regime. QED certainly works at distances of order miles.

    The value of Zeilinger’s experiments is purely pedagogical, everyone around agrees with that, and the Nobel prize committees is not a bunch of lame journalists that could be fooled and confuse a funny experiment with a new discovery.

  13. Fabien Besnard says:

    Dolt : Alain Connes has a web site where you can find his latest papers : http://www.alainconnes.org/
    John Baez speaks of some recent math papers from time to time on his web page.

    On the whole I think Peter is right about the ‘math style’ but this is rapidly changing, I think mainly because of the increasing pressure to publish impressive number of papers.

  14. Lubos Motl: “Well, the website also suggests that Anton Zeilinger could be a conceivable candidate. His experiments are cute even though their value is purely pedagogical – they proved that quantum mechanics works the way that everyone well-informed has already understood in the late 1920s.”

    No, those experiments proved that the real world works in a way consistent with a theory that’s been known since the 1920s. This is a huge difference, especially since many of those experiments checked that theory in a regime that’s never before been probed experibmentally.

  15. dolt says:


    Thank you very much for explaining the difference in the way mathematics and physics is done. I had not appreciated the significant difference in style.

    Well, I will have to rely on the various mathematical awards to get a sense of what the community thinks the important papers have been
    in mathematics.

    MathScinet, as you said, needs institutional subscription. Too bad the mathematicians do not maintain their own webpages and post their papers! Some do (perhaps the younger ones), but most don’t.

  16. Lubos Motl says:

    Hey Sol,

    could I ask you to try to express at least one your ideas in a different way? I did not understand the meaning of a single sentence in your text. Who are those who “look at quantum mechanics”? Which viewpoint is outdated? Which Feynman’s toy model are you talking about? What is the difference between your “new era” and the “old era”? Why is it related to all the previous questions?

    Which “refinements of refined GLAST perceptions” are you talking about? Why do you think that this offers an insight to GR if it would contradict GR? Why do you think that these questions are related to string theory, and what do you mean by the “right” string theory?


  17. sol says:

    If you noticed, Lubos constanty refers to the outdated viewsto those who look at quantum mechanical discriptions, even though there is a nice trail has been set up in Feynmen’s toy model.

    I think he is nicely trying to nudge people out of the “ancient views,” to a more modern acceptance of quantum mechanical posturing, so that maybe the “new era,” could have accepted other possibilties.

    Maybe refinements in Glast gamma ray perceptions to have refined it to a much more deeper connection with GR?

    I’m only speculating of course as to the “right” string theory:)

    Maybe a NObel prize in this?

  18. Peter says:

    The main reason there haven’t been many Nobel prizes in relativity is that there aren’t a lot of unexpected experimental results. Pretty much all the experimental results agree with the GR prediction. About the only real non-GR prediction about gravity is Hawking radiation, but Hawking is unlikely to get a Nobel for this unless a radiating black hole is discovered.

    The 1993 Nobel to Hulse and Taylor for measuring the effects of gravitational radiation on binary pulsars is one example of a relativity Nobel. Another example would be the 1978 Nobel for observing the CMB given to Penzias and Wilson.

    Actually, another good bet for the Nobel prize this year would probably be for a prize for the WMAP experiment.

  19. Peter says:

    The culture in mathematics about preprints and papers is somewhat different than in physics. You can think of physics as being more “journalistic”, with the emphasis being on getting something out there about the latest, hottest topic, in a form that as many people as possible can read, without overly worrying about whether it is completely correct.

    Mathematicians are much more obsessed with writing something that is precisely correct; they often feel that they are writing for the ages, not just for the current fashion. The numbers of people working on any given topic is quite different in math and particle theory. Most mathematicians are working on problems that only a handful of other people around the world can understand the significance of, whereas for the latest fashionable theoretical physics topic there are hundreds if not thousands of researchers interested in following what is being done.

    So mathematicians tend to be less interested in getting their work out quickly and having it widely distributed on the arxiv. This is changing as more and more of them see the advantages of this, but there still is a sizable part of the literature that doesn’t show up on the arxiv (unlike the situation in particle theory). There isn’t another large parallel preprint system, although the “MathSciNet” on-line version of Mathematical Reviews run by the AMS has very complete information about what papers are out there. But often you do need access to a library, or an affiliation with an insitution that is paying for electronic access rights to get to see papers.

    Trying to put together a list of the most important papers in a wide variety of fields would be valuable, but it’s very hard. To do this well you really would need a very wide range of expertise and spend some serious time looking into different fields and talking to the experts. Someone should do this, but I don’t think I’m up for it. And of course the people whose papers you put on the list would be mildly pleased, but think it their due, while those you didn’t put on the list would often become lifetime enemies.

  20. dolt says:


    Here is a suggestion:

    How about posting a list of important papers ( in your opinion, or the experts) in mathematics and physics (as many subfields!) every year, say in December? Since you are in the math department, you have a rare opportunity of
    sharing the progress in mathematics with us physicists. Of course, your post on Perelman is an excellent example.

    BTW, I seem to find that mathematicians have not embraced the arxiv the way particle physicists have. Is that true? To someone outside academia, it is hard to get access to mathematical journals.
    Or is there an alternate site where the papers are posted?


  21. D R Lunsford says:

    If not what Peter said, then I would think someone in materials research, magnetic or solid state. The development of disk technology has changed the world. (Last year was superconductors.)

  22. Thomas Larsson says:

    I’d vote for Belavin-Polyakov-Zamolodchikov, for the application of conformal field theory to 2D critical phenomena. 2D statphys is admittedly not the most important part of physics; e.g., it is of less physical importance than 3D statphys. Nevertheless, this is the only major theoretical discovery after 1980 which is also real, experimentally confirmed physics.

    I will not make any bets, though. I have expected that BPZ would win the Prize for more than ten years, but it never happens.

  23. serenus zeitblom says:

    Politzer “hasn’t done much”?! Well, I think all of us here would be delighted to have done so little!
    By the way, re his famous work, what is impressive is not just that he has a paper that has been cited over 2000 times — what is even more impressive is that he *wrote it by himself*. Nowadays, when hardly anyone seems to be able to think for himself, that is really impressive.

  24. Matt says:

    other candidates for a QCD-like Nobel prize are usually out of the game (‘t Hooft and Gell-Mann have already received one) – perhaps except for Bjorken.

    How about Nambu? (I would love to see Bjorken get the prize, though.)

  25. D R Lunsford says:

    Good point _______.

    I’d like to call you something other than _______, but you are too paranoid to be a person in this place of persons.

    (WHY are people so afraid to use their names?)

  26. Lubos Motl says:

    David Gross was only added to the main “stock market” on a German Nobel prize toy website 2 days ago, but he immediately sold $50,000 of his stocks and is normally traded right now.


    You can buy the stocks of Gross and Wilczek! I think that they are much cheaper than the real value. 😉 Gross, Wilczek, and probably Politzer is both my wish as well as my bet for Tuesday – but the probability that a particular bet works out is always smaller than 50%, I would say.

    But it has already been 5 years from ‘t Hooft and Veltman; other candidates for a QCD-like Nobel prize are usually out of the game (‘t Hooft and Gell-Mann have already received one) – perhaps except for Bjorken.

    Well, the website also suggests that Anton Zeilinger could be a conceivable candidate. His experiments are cute even though their value is purely pedagogical – they proved that quantum mechanics works the way that everyone well-informed has already understood in the late 1920s.

    If a member of the Nobel prize committee reads this posting, they should know that the question whether David Politzer is included or not is probably secondary, and should not change the decision that Gross and Wilczek should be awarded this time.

  27. Anon says:

    Any thoughts on why the entire field of Relativity
    has been short shrifted by the Nobel committees –
    from forever?

    Is it true that Chandrasekhar received the only
    Nobel for (an application of) Relativity?

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