Tag Archives: Nobel

Congratulations to James Peebles, Michel Mayor, and Didier Queloz!

The 2019 Physics Nobel Prize was announced this week, awarded to James Peebles for work in cosmology and to Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz for the first observation of an exoplanet.

Peebles introduced quantitative methods to cosmology. He figured out how to use the Cosmic Microwave Background (light left over from the Big Bang) to understand how matter is distributed in our universe, including the presence of still-mysterious dark matter and dark energy. Mayor and Queloz were the first team to observe a planet outside of our solar system (an “exoplanet”), in 1995. By careful measurement of the spectrum of light coming from a star they were able to find a slight wobble, caused by a Jupiter-esque planet in orbit around it. Their discovery opened the floodgates of observation. Astronomers found many more planets than expected, showing that, far from a rare occurrence, exoplanets are quite common.

It’s a bit strange that this Nobel was awarded to two very different types of research. This isn’t the first time the prize was divided between two different discoveries, but all of the cases I can remember involve discoveries in closely related topics. This one didn’t, and I’m curious about the Nobel committee’s logic. It might have been that neither discovery “merited a Nobel” on its own, but I don’t think we’re supposed to think of shared Nobels as “lesser” than non-shared ones. It would make sense if the Nobel committee thought they had a lot of important results to “get through” and grouped them together to get through them faster, but if anything I have the impression it’s the opposite: that at least in physics, it’s getting harder and harder to find genuinely important discoveries that haven’t been acknowledged. Overall, this seems like a very weird pairing, and the Nobel committee’s citation “for contributions to our understanding of the evolution of the universe and Earth’s place in the cosmos” is a pretty loose justification.

Congratulations to Arthur Ashkin, Gérard Mourou, and Donna Strickland!

The 2018 Physics Nobel Prize was announced this week, awarded to Arthur Ashkin, Gérard Mourou, and Donna Strickland for their work in laser physics.

nobel2018Some Nobel prizes recognize discoveries of the fundamental nature of reality. Others recognize the tools that make those discoveries possible.

Ashkin developed techniques that use lasers to hold small objects in place, culminating in “optical tweezers” that can pick up and move individual bacteria. Mourou and Strickland developed chirped pulse amplification, the current state of the art in extremely high-power lasers. Strickland is only the third woman to win the Nobel prize in physics, Ashkin at 96 is the oldest person to ever win the prize.

(As an aside, the phrase “optical tweezers” probably has you imagining two beams of laser light pinching a bacterium between them, like microscopic lightsabers. In fact, optical tweezers use a single beam, focused and bent so that if an object falls out of place it will gently roll back to the middle of the beam. Instead of tweezers, it’s really more like a tiny laser spoon.)

The Nobel announcement emphasizes practical applications, like eye surgery. It’s important to remember that these are research tools as well. I wouldn’t have recognized the names of Ashkin, Mourou, and Strickland, but I recognized atom trapping, optical tweezers, and ultrashort pulses. Hang around atomic physicists, or quantum computing experiments, and these words pop up again and again. These are essential tools that have given rise to whole subfields. LIGO won a Nobel based on the expectation that it would kick-start a vast new area of research. Ashkin, Mourou, and Strickland’s work already has.

When You Shouldn’t Listen to a Distinguished but Elderly Scientist

Of science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke’s sayings, the most famous is “Clarke’s third law”, that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Almost as famous, though, is his first law:

“When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.”

Recently Michael Atiyah, an extremely distinguished but also rather elderly mathematician, claimed that something was possible: specifically, he claimed it was possible that he had proved the Riemann hypothesis, one of the longest-standing and most difficult puzzles in mathematics. I won’t go into the details here, but people are, well, skeptical.

This post isn’t really about Atiyah. I’m not close enough to that situation to comment. Instead, it’s about a more general problem.

See, the public seems to mostly agree with Clarke’s law. They trust distinguished, elderly scientists, at least when they’re saying something optimistic. Other scientists know better. We know that scientists are human, that humans age…and that sometimes scientific minds don’t age gracefully.

Some of the time, that means Alzheimer’s, or another form of dementia. Other times, it’s nothing so extreme, just a mind slowing down with age, opinions calcifying and logic getting just a bit more fuzzy.

And the thing is, watching from the sidelines, you aren’t going to know the details. Other scientists in the field will, but this kind of thing is almost never discussed with the wider public. Even here, though specific physicists come to mind as I write this, I’m not going to name them. It feels rude, to point out that kind of all-too-human weakness in someone who accomplished so much. But I think it’s important for the public to keep in mind that these people exist. When an elderly Nobelist claims to have solved a problem that baffles mainstream science, the news won’t tell you they’re mentally ill. All you can do is keep your eyes open, and watch for warning signs:

Be wary of scientists who isolate themselves. Scientists who still actively collaborate and mentor almost never have this kind of problem. There’s a nasty feedback loop when those contacts start to diminish. Being regularly challenged is crucial to test scientific ideas, but it’s also important for mental health, especially in the elderly. As a scientist thinks less clearly, they won’t be able to keep up with their collaborators as much, worsening the situation.

Similarly, beware those famous enough to surround themselves with yes-men. With Nobel prizewinners in particular, many of the worst cases involve someone treated with so much reverence that they forget to question their own ideas. This is especially risky when commenting on an unfamiliar field: often, the Nobelist’s contacts in the new field have a vested interest in holding on to their big-name support, and ignoring signs of mental illness.

Finally, as always, bigger claims require better evidence. If everything someone works on is supposed to revolutionize science as we know it, then likely none of it will. The signs that indicate crackpots apply here as well: heavily invoking historical scientists, emphasis on notation over content, a lack of engagement with the existing literature. Be especially wary if the argument seems easy, deep problems are rarely so simple to solve.

Keep this in mind, and the next time a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, don’t trust them blindly. Ultimately, we’re still humans beings. We don’t last forever.

Congratulations to Rainer Weiss, Barry Barish, and Kip Thorne!

The Nobel Prize in Physics was announced this week, awarded to Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Barry Barish for their work on LIGO, the gravitational wave detector.

Nobel2017

Many expected the Nobel to go to LIGO last year, but the Nobel committee waited. At the time, it was expected the prize would be awarded to Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Ronald Drever, the three founders of the LIGO project, but there were advocates for Barry Barish was well. Traditionally, the Nobel is awarded to at most three people, so the argument got fairly heated, with opponents arguing Barish was “just an administrator” and advocates pointing out that he was “just the administrator without whom the project would have been cancelled in the 90’s”.

All of this ended up being irrelevant when Drever died last March. The Nobel isn’t awarded posthumously, so the list of obvious candidates (or at least obvious candidates who worked on LIGO) was down to three, which simplified thing considerably for the committee.

LIGO’s work is impressive and clearly Nobel-worthy, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there is some controversy around it. In June, several of my current colleagues at the Niels Bohr Institute uploaded a paper arguing that if you subtract the gravitational wave signal that LIGO claims to have found then the remaining data, the “noise”, is still correlated between LIGO’s two detectors, which it shouldn’t be if it were actually just noise. LIGO hasn’t released an official response yet, but a LIGO postdoc responded with a guest post on Sean Carroll’s blog, and the team at NBI had responses of their own.

I’d usually be fairly skeptical of this kind of argument: it’s easy for an outsider looking at the data from a big experiment like this to miss important technical details that make the collaboration’s analysis work. That said, having seen some conversations between these folks, I’m a bit more sympathetic. LIGO hadn’t been communicating very clearly initially, and it led to a lot of unnecessary confusion on both sides.

One thing that I don’t think has been emphasized enough is that there are two claims LIGO is making: that they detected gravitational waves, and that they detected gravitational waves from black holes of specific masses at a specific distance. The former claim could be supported by the existence of correlated events between the detectors, without many assumptions as to what the signals should look like. The team at NBI seem to have found a correlation of that sort, but I don’t know if they still think the argument in that paper holds given what they’ve said elsewhere.

The second claim, that the waves were from a collision of black holes with specific masses, requires more work. LIGO compares the signal to various models, or “templates”, of black hole events, trying to find one that matches well. This is what the group at NBI subtracts to get the noise contribution. There’s a lot of potential for error in this sort of template-matching. If two templates are quite similar, it may be that the experiment can’t tell the difference between them. At the same time, the individual template predictions have their own sources of uncertainty, coming from numerical simulations and “loops” in particle physics-style calculations. I haven’t yet found a clear explanation from LIGO of how they take these various sources of error into account. It could well be that even if they definitely saw gravitational waves, they don’t actually have clear evidence for the specific black hole masses they claim to have seen.

I’m sure we’ll hear more about this in the coming months, as both groups continue to talk through their disagreement. Hopefully we’ll get a clearer picture of what’s going on. In the meantime, though, Weiss, Barish, and Thorne have accomplished something impressive regardless, and should enjoy their Nobel.

Congratulations to Thouless, Haldane, and Kosterlitz!

I’m traveling this week in sunny California, so I don’t have time for a long post, but I thought I should mention that the 2016 Nobel Prize in Physics has been announced. Instead of going to LIGO, as many had expected, it went to David Thouless, Duncan Haldane, and Michael Kosterlitz. LIGO will have to wait for next year.

Thouless, Haldane, and Kosterlitz are condensed matter theorists. While particle physics studies the world at the smallest scales and astrophysics at the largest, condensed matter physics lives in between, explaining the properties of materials on an everyday scale. This can involve inventing new materials, or unusual states of matter, with superconductors being probably the most well-known to the public. Condensed matter gets a lot less press than particle physics, but it’s a much bigger field: overall, the majority of physicists study something under the condensed matter umbrella.

This year’s Nobel isn’t for a single discovery. Rather, it’s for methods developed over the years that introduced topology into condensed matter physics.

Topology often gets described in terms of coffee cups and donuts. In topology, two shapes are the same if you can smoothly change one into another, so a coffee cup and a donut are really the same shape.

mug_and_torus_morphMost explanations stop there, which makes it hard to see how topology could be useful for physics. The missing part is that topology studies not just which shapes can smoothly change into each other, but which things, in general, can change smoothly into each other.

That’s important, because in physics most changes are smooth. If two things can’t change smoothly into each other, something special needs to happen to bridge the gap between them.

There are a lot of different sorts of implications this can have. Topology means that some materials can be described by a number that’s conserved no matter what (smooth) changes occur, leading to experiments that see specific “levels” rather than a continuous range of outcomes. It means that certain physical setups can’t change smoothly into other ones, which protects those setups from changing: an idea people are investigating in the quest to build a quantum computer, where extremely delicate quantum states can be disrupted by even the slightest change.

Overall, topology has been enormously important in physics, and Thouless, Haldane, and Kosterlitz deserve a significant chunk of the credit for bringing it into the spotlight.

Hooray for Neutrinos!

Congratulations to Takaaki Kajita and Arthur McDonald, winners of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics, as well as to the Super-Kamiokande and SNOLAB teams that made their work possible.

Congratulations!

Unlike last year’s Nobel, this is one I’ve been anticipating for quite some time. Kajita and McDonald discovered that neutrinos have mass, and that discovery remains our best hint that there is something out there beyond the Standard Model.

But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself.

Neutrinos are the lightest of the fundamental particles, and for a long time they were thought to be completely massless. Their name means “little neutral one”, and it’s probably the last time physicists used “-ino” to mean “little”. Neutrinos are “neutral” because they have no electrical charge. They also don’t interact with the strong nuclear force. Only the weak nuclear force has any effect on them. (Well, gravity does too, but very weakly.)

This makes it very difficult to detect neutrinos: you have to catch them interacting via the weak force, which is, well, weak. Originally, that meant they had to be inferred by their absence: missing energy in nuclear reactions carried away by “something”. Now, they can be detected, but it requires massive tanks of fluid, carefully watched for the telltale light of the rare interactions between neutrinos and ordinary matter. You wouldn’t notice if billions of neutrinos passed through you every second, like an unstoppable army of ghosts. And in fact, that’s exactly what happens!

Visualization of neutrinos from a popular documentary

In the 60’s, scientists began to use these giant tanks of fluid to detect neutrinos coming from the sun. An enormous amount of effort goes in to understanding the sun, and these days our models of it are pretty accurate, so it came as quite a shock when researchers observed only half the neutrinos they expected. It wasn’t until the work of Super-Kamiokande in 1998, and SNOLAB in 2001, that we knew the reason why.

As it turns out, neutrinos oscillate. Neutrinos are produced in what are called flavor states, which match up with the different types of leptons. There are electron-neutrinos, muon-neutrinos, and tau-neutrinos.

Radioactive processes usually produce electron-neutrinos, so those are the type that the sun produces. But on their way from the sun to the earth, these neutrinos “oscillate”: they switch between electron neutrinos and the other types! The older detectors, focused only on electron-neutrinos, couldn’t see this. SNOLAB’s big advantage was that it could detect the other types of neutrinos as well, and tell the difference between them, which allowed it to see that the “missing” neutrinos were really just turning into other flavors! Meanwhile, Super-Kamiokande measured neutrinos coming not from the sun, but from cosmic rays reacting with the upper atmosphere. Some of these neutrinos came from the sky above the detector, while others traveled all the way through the earth below it, from the atmosphere on the other side. By observing “missing” neutrinos coming from below but not from above, Super-Kamiokande confirmed that it wasn’t the sun’s fault that we were missing solar neutrinos, neutrinos just oscillate!

What does this oscillation have to do with neutrinos having mass, though?

Here things get a bit trickier. I’ve laid some of the groundwork in older posts. I’ve told you to think about mass as “energy we haven’t met yet”, as the energy something has when we leave it alone to itself. I’ve also mentioned that conservation laws come from symmetries of nature, that energy conservation is a result of symmetry in time.

This should make it a little more plausible when I say that when something has a specific mass, it doesn’t change. It can decay into other particles, or interact with other forces, but left alone, by itself, it won’t turn into something else. To be more specific, it doesn’t oscillate. A state with a fixed mass is symmetric in time.

The only way neutrinos can oscillate between flavor states, then, is if one flavor state is actually a combination (in quantum terms, a superposition) of different masses. The components with different masses move at different speeds, so at any point along their path you can be more or less likely to see certain masses of neutrinos. As the mix of masses changes, the flavor state changes, so neutrinos end up oscillating from electron-neutrino, to muon-neutrino, to tau-neutrino.

So because of neutrino oscillation, neutrinos have to have mass. But this presented a problem. Most fundamental particles get their mass from interacting with the Higgs field. But, as it turns out, neutrinos can’t interact with the Higgs field. This has to do with the fact that neutrinos are “chiral”, and only come in a “left-handed” orientation. Only if they had both types of “handedness” could they get their mass from the Higgs.

As-is, they have to get their mass another way, and that way has yet to be definitively shown. Whatever it ends up being, it will be beyond the current Standard Model. Maybe there actually are right-handed neutrinos, but they’re too massive, or interact too weakly, for them to have been discovered. Maybe neutrinos are Majorana particles, getting mass in a novel way that hasn’t been seen yet in the Standard Model.

Whatever we discover, neutrinos are currently our best evidence that something lies beyond the Standard Model. Naturalness may have philosophical problems, dark matter may be explained away by modified gravity…but if neutrinos have mass, there’s something we still have yet to discover. And that definitely seems worthy of a Nobel to me!

A Nobel for Blue LEDs, or, How Does That Count as Physics?

When I first heard about this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics, I didn’t feel the need to post on it. The prize went to Isamu Akasaki, Hiroshi Amano and Shuji Nakamura, whose discoveries enabled blue LEDs. It’s a more impressive accomplishment than it might seem: while red LEDs have been around since the 60’s and 70’s, blue LEDs were only developed in the 90’s, and only with both can highly efficient, LED-based white light sources be made. Still, I didn’t consider posting on it because it’s pretty much entirely outside my field.

Shiny, though.

It took a conversation with another PI postdoc to point out one way I can comment on the Nobel, and it started when we tried to figure out what type of physicists Akasaki, Amano, and Nakamura are. After tossing around terms like “device physicist” and “condensed matter”, someone wondered whether the development of blue LEDs wasn’t really a matter of engineering.

At that point I realized, I’ve talked about something like this before.

Physicists work on lots of different things, and many of them don’t seem to have much to do with physics. They study geometry and topology, biological molecules and the nature of evolution, income inequality and, yes, engineering.

On the surface, these don’t have much to do with physics. A friend of mine used to quip that condensed matter physicists seem to just “pick whatever they want to research”.

There is something that ties all of these topics together, though. They’re all things that physicists are good at.

Physics grad school gives you a wide variety of tools with which to understand the world. Thermodynamics gives you a way to understand large, complicated systems with statistics, while quantum field theory lets you understand everything with quantum properties, not just fundamental particles but materials as well. This batch of tools can be applied to “traditional” topics, but they’re equally applicable if you’re researching something else entirely, as long as it obeys the right kinds of rules.

In the end, the best definition of physics is the most useful one. Physicists should be people who can benefit from being part of physics organizations, from reading physics journals, and especially from training (and having been) physics grad students. The whole reason we have scientific disciplines in the first place is to make it easier for people with common interests to work together. That’s why Akasaki, Amano, and Nakamura aren’t “just” engineers, and why I and my fellow string theorists aren’t “just” mathematicians. We use our knowledge of physics to do our jobs, and that, more than anything else, makes us physicists.


Edit: It has been pointed out to me that there’s a bit more to this story than the main accounts have let on. Apparently another researcher named Herbert Paul Maruska was quite close to getting a blue LED up and running back in the early 1970’s, getting far enough to have a working prototype. There’s a whole fascinating story about the quest for a blue LED, related here. Maruska seems to be on friendly terms with Akasaki, Amano, and Nakamura, and doesn’t begrudge them their recognition.