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Criteria for Winning a Nobel Prize in Physics

  1. May 19, 2009 #1
    I'm kind of confused on how someone can receive a Nobel Prize in Physics if they had only devolped a theory. For example, if someone can show the use of mathematics to resolve a problem in physics (An example might be the unification of the forces) but lacks experimental evidence can they still be considered for a Nobel Prize (of course there are other prizes or whatever, it's just the one that comes to my head).

    What i mean is if a person resolves a conflict not by developing a radically theory that must be tested (like string theory) but rather just has mathematical evidence for the theory, is it equivalent to experimental evidence? I hope you know what i meant by that.

    Thanks in Advance!
  2. jcsd
  3. May 19, 2009 #2
    One can win a Nobel Prize for any work that the Nobel Prize Committee deems to be worth one. There are no hard and fast rules beyond that. (OK, well, you have to be alive... no posthumous prizes are permitted.)
  4. May 19, 2009 #3
    Thanks for replying, and its funny you said that because string theorist work so hard and have an amazing theory but i'm not sure if any have a Nobel prize in physics. Do you think they deserve one? I'm sure if string theory is confirmed by the LHC then there will be many handed out.
  5. May 19, 2009 #4


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    It always seemed to me that the person who won the Nobel Prize was the person who discovered something, not the person who predicted that something would be discovered. You could just sit around predicting stuff all day and 'publishing' it on arXiv and hoping you get lucky, but the person who finds it gets the credit - several Nobel Prizes have now been awarded for the discovery of the cosmic microwave background, but none to the people who predicted it, just to those who discovered it (although Gamow never lived to see it discovered).
  6. May 19, 2009 #5
    But not all Nobel prizes are handed out because someone discovered something. Many theorist have been awarded a Nobel prize, and the experimentalist who confirm the theorist predictions aren't the ones who win it. So, i think you're not completely right people do win Nobel prize for "Predicting" stuff.
  7. May 19, 2009 #6
    While carrying out an experiment correctly is difficult, its not Nobel-prize worthy. The Nobel goes to the person who comes up with the reason for doing the experiment. The hard part of a discovery is to come up with a model to explain a behavior or develop an existing theory not to test the result.
  8. May 19, 2009 #7
    What happens if a theory can't be proven incorrect, and do thought experiments count or not really?
  9. May 19, 2009 #8


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    Counter-example: Carlo Rubbia won the Nobel Prize in 1984 for being the leader of the experiment at CERN that first observed the W and Z bosons.
  10. May 19, 2009 #9
    I'm pretty sure "theory" and "can't be proven incorrect" are incompatible.
  11. May 19, 2009 #10
    That's what i thought.
  12. May 19, 2009 #11


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    If the "can't be proven incorrect" refers to theory, and not just current technological limitations, then yes you are right, in general it's not a theory.
  13. May 19, 2009 #12

    D H

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    Exactly wrong. A very important part of what distinguishes a scientific theory from Joe Blow's "theory" is that scientific theories must be falsifiable. You should google that term, and while you are at it, google Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn (separate searches).
  14. May 20, 2009 #13
    This is a strange exchange, you both seem to agree that theories are falsifiable (according to popper) but D H says Razor 7 is wrong anyway. Perhaps this was a mistake and D H had meant to quote someone else?
  15. May 20, 2009 #14

    D H

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    Never mind. It was late and I was confused by the double negative.
  16. May 20, 2009 #15


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    I'm hesitant to be involved in this thread (for reasons that I won't reveal), but an important fact here seems to be missing here that should be clarified.

    At the http://cerncourier.com/cws/article/cern/29416" [Broken]for the physical science is as follows:

    The words "discovery" and "invention" here are crucial. It is arguable if a theoretical description can be argued as a "discovery". It is certainly not an invention in the sense that we normally associate an invention for. This was a major dilemma that the Nobel committee had to wrestle with in deciding if what Einstein had done can be considered as a "discovery". It is why the photoelectric effect model that he formulated was chosen because it can be attached to the "discovery" of the photoelectric effect, i.e. providing a more complete understanding of the phenomenon.

    Why am I telling this? You guys have been arguing about "theory" and such. It is clear from the history of the Nobel Prize in physics that theorists have a harder time in winning the Nobel prize on their own, not just because the nature of the verification of any theoretical ideas, but also due to the Nobel Prize charter. This is why many theorists won their prizes alongside experimentalists for their explanation of a particular phenomenon (example: Laughlin alongside the experimentalists who discovered the fractional quantum hall effect). When theorists won it by themselves, it is often for a major theoretical formulation of an existing phenomenon, and can be considered as part of the "discovery" of that phenomenon (example: superconductivity and BCS theory).

    So if one goes back to the original question, that part of Nobel's will that I quoted are technically the ONLY criteria for winning the Nobel Prize. However, that doesn't mean anyone or anything can. The nominating body (and one should look at the Nobel website to see who or what can do the nomination) are the only group of people who can nominate, and you need just ONE nomination to be considered.

    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  17. May 20, 2009 #16
    I have another question. Is an explanation to a phenomena considered a theory, or would it be just be like a research paper.
  18. May 20, 2009 #17
    Wait, on wikipedia it says the explanation to a phenomena is a theory, so i think i got my answer.
  19. May 20, 2009 #18


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    It is not a secret that the Nobel committee will only award the prize for theories that have been experimentally verified (for obvious reasons, imagine what would happen if they awarded it to a theory that turned out to be wrong!), i.e. it is not only a question about how important the work is.
    This is the reason for why some well-known theorists that have done important work can't even be considered for a prize; people who work in e.g. string theory don't even have a theoretical chance of winning it.

    This requirement is also one of the reasons for why some people are awarded the prize many years after they first published the theory.
    To take a current example: If Planck and Herschel finds strong evidence for inflation it would automatically make Guth and Lindé strong contenders; as it is they can't even be considered (at least not for inflation) even though inflation has been an important part of cosmology for a long time.
  20. May 21, 2009 #19


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    You can read Gerardus t'Hooft's website about winning a Nobel prize in physics. He believes that if you have a bit of intelligence and a lot of persistance you too can win a Nobel Prize also. He actually outlines the topics that you need to know in physics and gives good advice on becoming a good physicist.

    My guess is as good as anyone elses but I'd say that you would need to do something substantial like for example make a prediction about various physical measurements with
    either a) explaining some aspect of our universe in any field of physics with more
    understanding and come up with new models that come up with quantative predictions that are statistically significant or b) Help improve on existing models in which aspects of them may be solved or extended in some form (which is usually the case) in which new things are predicted and also explained in some manner.

    Given the diversity and enormous scope of physics, there is quite a lot to do if someone was to solve even part of the equation. You can read a lot of the normal stuff like that of the standard model, general relativity and string theory, but there is a lot of new research that tries to cover old ground and explain things like anomolies in what is already "well known" physical phenomena like for instance in say electromagnetism. So I think that if its implications are big enough, then you don't need to go to the most currently known generalization of known models because quite simply while it can explain most things, we can't explain all things. Instead you can look at different areas of applied physics and perhaps discover a new effect like for example the Casimir effect (which I think was discovered in an industrial setting).

    Anyway this rant is longer than I intended it to be so I'm out but i'm sure that if you look at the prizes and what they were for, you can get an idea of kinds of discoveries or research that you might have to do to win one.

    Sorry I don't have the link for G t'Hoofts website you can just google it and it should come up.
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