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Friday, December 8, 2023
Dr. Brown: The art of choosing Nobel Prize winners in science
Dr. William Brown. File Photo

The process of choosing Nobel Prize-winning work and winners begins soon after the awards ceremony the previous year.

Invitations are sent out for nominations to hundreds of experts around the world, including previous prize winners.

The nominations are scrupulously reviewed and winnowed down to a final pool and the decision made.

The inner workings and results of votes of selection committees are never disclosed and rarely leaked. There are severe penalties for anyone who breaks the rules.

Sometimes the choice is driven by urgency, as it was in 2021 with climate change when the Nobel committee made its own views plain for all to see: human-generated climate change posed a serious threat to the Earth’s climate and life itself.

Other times rapidly evolving areas in science such as gene editing – barely a decade old – are rewarded, as happened in 2020.

Sometimes, Nobels are awarded for studies in the classical mould of medicine or physiology, for example work on the circadian rhythm, place, and grid cells, and most recently for truly elegant genetic and receptor protein studies of touch-pressure and temperature sensations.

If there’s one central theme for Nobel Prizes in the sciences, it was surely captured by Richard Feynman, a theoretical quantum physicist, with an imaginative, picture-like grasp of the quantum world rivalled only by Einstein’s grasp of the relationship between mass, space and time.

Feynman laid down the rules for science this way: “In general we look for a new law by the following process. First we guess it. Then we compute the consequences of the guess to see what would be implied if this law that we guessed, is right. Then we …. compare it directly with observation to see if it works.”

“If it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is. It does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his or her name is – if it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong. That’s all there is to it.”

Like Einstein, Feynman was a genius in his work, and but unlike Einstein he was unrivalled by his talent for mesmerizing students, colleagues and the public with the way he visualized and explained physics.

Especially that without supportive experimental evidence, no amount of charm, cleverness, reputation or beauty can overcome what is wrong.

There’s a strong sense of the latter for Nobel Prizes in the sciences, evident in a reluctance to award what are considered unproven hypotheses. Feynman and the Nobel committee both insist – “prove it.”

It also explains why they waited so long to award a Nobel for black holes – until at least one was photographed in 2019, or why they were so reluctant to award a second Nobel to Einstein for his beautiful theory for general relativity.

They finally capitulated indirectly when they awarded Roger Penrose in 2020 for his strong evidence that general relativity defined the shape of black holes.

And sometimes, the Nobel committee tries to settle old scores. That was the case last year when it rewarded three experimental physicists whose collective work finally put to rest whether Einstein’s claim that the behaviour of entangled particles – particles whose properties, say spin – behaved as if they were locked together, which was impossible according to Einstein but possible according to quantum rules and experiment.

The latter was shown to be the case and doing so closed the door on Einstein’s claim that quantum physics (including quantum uncertainty) was an incomplete theory, lacking causality.

For what it’s worth, my view is that Einstein was and is right, but the case is passé for now: quantum physics works extremely well in the real world.

Isaac Newton’s world also works today for space travel but only because the speeds involved are so slow relative to the speed of light and even so, corrections that incorporate general relativity have to be made for GPS signals to be accurate. So, Newton is right, just not for high speeds.

My predictions for Nobels in the sciences included one for RNA vaccines, AI for unravelling protein structure in the last few years and monoclonal antibodies for treating cancer, autoimmune diseases and Alzheimer’s.

My batting average is no better than getting at least one science award right each year but there were years when I struck out entirely.

The Nobel series at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Pubic Library begins in early November. Please sign up with Debbie Krause. It’s a great program.

Dr. William Brown is a professor of neurology at McMaster University and co-founder of the InfoHealth series at the Niagara-on-the-Lake Public Library.

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